Philly spent a decade reconnecting neighborhoods to the waterfront. Widening I-95 is repeating past mistakes.
The 21st-century version of the highway is turning out to be bigger and more intrusive than the original, 20th-century design.
Over the last decade, something miraculous has been happening in the central Philadelphia neighborhoods that border the Great Wall of I-95. Guided by a smart master plan, the agency that manages the Delaware waterfront has helped transform its old piers and industrial relics into parks, art venues and new housing developments.
The neighborhoods on the west side of I-95 have similarly blossomed. So many new apartment buildings are going up in Fishtown and Northern Liberties that Girard Avenue (where the two neighborhoods meet) is starting to look like a second Center City.
Those changes have helped make I-95 feel like less of a barrier. Along with building new parks, the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. has installed colorful lights and artworks in the intimidating passages that run under I-95, so people feel more comfortable walking and biking down to the lush riverfront. Last month, DRWC capped its efforts with a three-mile bike highway that runs along Delaware Avenue, linking a necklace of green spaces between Fishtown’s Penn Treaty Park and Queen Village. The well-designed path, which is separated from both the road and sidewalk by landscaped buffers, sets a new standard for biking infrastructure in Philadelphia.
PennDot has been hard at work, too. Just as the waterfront agency was starting to improve access to the Delaware River in 2010, PennDot began a multiphase project to renovate I-95, which is nearing the end of its expected life. Over the last decade, the state has rebuilt the stretch that runs through Fishtown. Now PennDot is preparing to tackle the segment that separates Northern Liberties from the Delaware River.
PennDot likes to refer to this work as a reconstruction. But, in reality, it’s a road-widening project. As currently designed, the next phase could actually worsen the divide that separates Northern Liberties from the Delaware waterfront.
That’s not the outcome the city was promised when PennDot began planning the project in the early 2000s. The original highway, built in the 1960s and ‘70s, nearly destroyed Philadelphia’s riverwards. Life in Fishtown and Northern Liberties had once revolved around the river and its industries — shipbuilding, rope-making, fishing. But after I-95 rammed a barrier between the residential areas and the river, and wiped entire streets off the map, the connection to the waterfront was severed. Half a century later, the riverwards still haven’t fully recovered. Vast tracts of vacant land still dot the eastern side of I-95, making the river feel distant and uninviting.
It’s taken decades, but federal officials have finally begun to acknowledge the damage that highways inflicted on Philadelphia and other cities, especially in Black, brown, and working-class neighborhoods. Late last year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg spoke eloquently about the need to heal those places, either by downsizing existing roads or removing them completely. With the federal government’s encouragement, more than a dozen cities have made plans to rip out highways that run through poor communities and cut them off waterfront access.
While Philadelphia once considered removing portions of I-95, the city was never brave enough to embrace the idea. So now I-95 is being rebuilt. Not as it was, but bigger.
For evidence, take a look at the section now being completed in Fishtown. Because PennDot has widened the emergency shoulders and added storm water management features, the rebuilt span is 10 to 20 feet wider than in its original configuration. New access ramps further increase its girth. It’s especially shocking to see the tangle of concrete flyovers that now dominate the intersection where Girard, Aramingo and Richmond converge.
Elaine Elbich, the PennDot manager for the reconstruction project, acknowledged in an interview that there is “a lot more structure” at the Aramingo intersection than preliminary designs indicated.
Mind you, the Aramingo interchange isn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere. The dense rowhouse streets of Fishtown and Port Richmond border its western edge. The interchange is directly across Richmond Street from Northbank, one of the largest new housing developments under construction in Philadelphia. Two blocks north is Graffiti Pier, where the DWRC is creating its newest park.
Yet, when I stopped by last week, the vast Richmond Street intersection had no crosswalks, and the pedestrian “beg button,” which is supposed to stop traffic, wasn’t functioning. A PennDot spokesman said that the agency is still wrapping up the construction and will install those pedestrian amenities once all the road work is done.
Why do neighborhood interests always come last? One reason the new version of I-95 ended up being wider than the original is that PennDot was obliged to meet new federal highway standards. That meant building more generous shoulders, so it’s easier for motorists to stop when they have a breakdown. Given that the highway already has shoulders, why not make an exception to the requirement when highways run through dense urban neighborhoods?
As a result of the widening, I-95 is now much closer to people’s homes than it was before. Are the safety gains really worth big-footing the neighborhood? Despite all the rhetoric about treating cities better, federal highway engineers still insist on one-size-fits-all design standards.
To be fair, PennDot did make an attempt to mitigate some aspects of the new design. Richmond Street has been improved with new sidewalks. There are more green swales to absorb rain water, and more noise barriers to soften the roar of traffic (although it’s still very loud). Since most of Fishtown’s I-95 span rests on pylons — rather than on a solid wall — residents have a visual connection to the riverfront.
Yet the new design fails the neighborhood in basic ways. There are still not enough through-streets where pedestrians and cyclists can easily cross Delaware Avenue. Those that do connect to the waterfront often remain forbidding places. The Columbia Avenue intersection, which serves as the main access point for Penn Treaty Park, is an asphalt abyss that is just as hard for pedestrians to navigate today as it was before the reconstruction.
These disappointing results do not bode well for the Northern Liberties segment, which is expected to go into construction in 2024. After suffering through years of deindustrialization, Northern Liberties is once again a thriving residential neighborhood, with an entertainment district at its center. More than 5,600 housing units have been approved in the last two years alone. If all get built, the neighborhood’s population could double to 18,000. Since there are so few green spaces in the residential center of Northern Liberties, the Delaware waterfront remains one of the few available refuges. How PennDot handles the connections under I-95, and the crosswalks on Delaware Avenue, will be crucial.
City planners have been meeting for years with PennDot to discuss these issues. But meeting isn’t the same as advocating. In the last few months, the Northern Liberties Business Improvement District has taken on that role, with the goal of expanding connections to the waterfront.
Because of the shortage of parks in Northern Liberties, the group started by commissioning an open space plan from Port, an urban design consultant. and KieranTimberlake, the firm that oversaw the waterfront master plan. The ambitious scheme envisions a series of pocket parks along Second Street. One of those pocket parks would be built at Second and Spring Garden, on a linear strip that runs alongside the highway and is owned by PennDot. Right now, the site is a big, grass-covered mound. It’s the kind of pointless landscape you see on highways in rural areas. The BID would level the berm and turn the land into a usable urban park.
That’s just the beginning. The plan’s most inspiring idea is what KieranTimberlake calls “Market Green.” While not actually a market or a green, the project would transform a two-block stretch of Second Street into a tree-lined, Parisian-style thoroughfare. Like grand streets in the French capital, Market Green would have wide sidewalks, with an outer zone set aside for sitting and dining.
Second Street — now a treacherous speedway — would be narrowed, and the existing angled parking would be replaced by curbside parking. The design gets its name because the two-block area could be closed to traffic for big events, such as outdoor markets.
As is often the case in Philadelphia, parking is the elephant in the room. To get local businesses to agree to reduce the number of parking spaces on Second Street, the BID wants PennDot to rebuild I-95 as a pylon structure, rather than recreating the solid wall that exists now. By putting the road on pylons, or concrete columns, PennDot could create parking lots under the highway, similar to those in Queen Village.
While I’m not a fan of parking lots, there is no better location for them than the waste ground under highways. For me, the real benefit of the pylon structure is that it would allow PennDot to reopen Poplar Street, which has been closed since the ‘70s. Still paved in cobblestones in places, that winding street could be a charming passage to the river.
PennDot isn’t completely sold on the idea, but it hasn’t said no, either. The agency is hesitant because a pylon structure would probably cost more than a walled structure. But the elected officials who represent Northern Liberties have all promised to lobby the federal government for the funds. “We need to be increasing access to the waterfront,” State Sen. Nikil Saval told me recently.
After completing its reconstruction of I-95 in Northern Liberties, PennDot will turn its attention to the Center City portion, and then the sections that run through South Philadelphia. Now is the time for the agency to realign its priorities to put Philadelphia neighborhoods first.
President Joe Biden says he wants to build America back better. He can prove his commitment to that campaign promise by ensuring that 21st-century highways don’t repeat the mistakes of the 20th century.