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After Dilworth Park's success, what about City Hall courtyard?

The Center City District trains its sights on another Philadelphia civic space. But should the city give up control?

City Hall courtyard, compass, people passing through. Monday, May 22, 2017.
City Hall courtyard, compass, people passing through. Monday, May 22, 2017.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Three years ago, the dowdy, underused municipal plaza in front of Philadelphia City Hall underwent a Cinderella-style transformation that has made it one of the livelier public spaces in town. Its private manager, the Center City District, now maintains Dilworth Park with such fastidiousness it literally sparkles in the sun.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about its stepsister spaces around City Hall, which are still in the city's care. In a reverse version of the fairy tale, the courtyard, portal walkways, and sidewalks around John McArthur's great, French-inspired chateau are the ones in tatters.

Renovating those outdoor areas would cost millions, but the city will dress up the courtyard temporarily this summer with a pop-up beer garden, thanks to a place-making grant from Southwest Airlines. The money will pay for new seating, umbrellas, and a performance stage, as well as an ambitious schedule of events being curated by the city's culture staff. All the activity promises to focus public attention on one of the city's most thrilling, if neglected, outdoor spaces. But after a second pop-up next summer, the money runs out.

Then what?

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the evolution of downtown Philadelphia that the Center City District's president, Paul Levy, is already studying the problem. Over the last decade, his organization has resuscitated four downtown parks and will soon add the Reading Viaduct to its portfolio. Although the first phase of the Rail Park isn't expected to be done until January, Levy told me he has begun a conversation with a small group of city officials and consultants about what could be the CCD's next project: the courtyard.

At least half a century has passed since the courtyard's last major renovation, and the wear and tear shows. The surface is a mismatch of brick, concrete, and asphalt. The paint on the in-ground compass, a favorite with residents and tourists alike, is fading. The courtyard's four SEPTA entrances are barely used, yet they clunk up the space. Now that Dilworth is all shined up, the contrast between the two adjacent plazas couldn't be more extreme.

Levy is a master at revitalizing such problem public spaces, and his group could easily take on a courtyard renovation. But given the significance of the space — the symbolic heart of the city — the conversation needs to be taken to a wider group. We should be talking about the courtyard's future together as a city, perhaps in the space itself, over beers.

That's not how it was done with Dilworth, which occupies an equally prominent position in Philadelphia's physical and mental landscape. There was relatively little public discussion before the Nutter administration outsourced the front door to City Hall to the CCD. The designs were presented to the public at all the usual forums, of course. But public presentation is not the same as public engagement.

One consequence is that there are important public issues that were never worked out before the CCD became Dilworth's steward. There is no clarity about whether public demonstrations are allowed in the park. We've never resolved how we feel about renting out this important piece of public real estate for private events.

As Philadelphia and other cities increasingly come to rely on private managers to oversee and fund their parks, these issues keep coming up. We're seeing it right now at Franklin Square, which is being rented out in the evenings for five weeks to the money-making Chinese Lantern Festival. In contrast, Levy said, Dilworth is off-limits to the public just 5 percent of the time. That doesn't sound like much, but it's the equivalent of 18 days a year. Is that an acceptable trade-off for being able to run through the magical splash fountain or skate under the stars?

For now, the city has no plans to outsource the courtyard to the CCD. Indeed, Deputy Planning Commissioner Alan Urek told me he believes the city "should maintain jurisdiction." At the same time, he said that "there have to be creative ways of getting more resources" to improve the courtyard.

Raising money is Levy's strength. After receiving grants from Poor Richard's Charitable Trust, the foundation run by Lisa Roberts and David Seltzer, and the William Penn Foundation, he hired WRT to develop a design strategy for improving the courtyard. Although their ideas are still rudimentary, Levy offered to show me a preview of their progress.

Their proposal calls for clearing the courtyard of its clutter to create a clean, flexible surface that could be used for a variety of activities, similar to Dilworth's multipurpose granite expanse. The courtyard's dated, over-scaled planting beds would be torn out. So would at least two of the four SEPTA subway entrances. Removing those elements would increase the usable space from 22,000 to 39,000 square feet. WRT's proposal offered no judgment about the fate of the compass. But it's hard to imagine a renovation that didn't improve on that beloved element, which marks the geographic center of William Penn's original grid.

All the outdoor spaces around City Hall are potent with meaning, yet, astonishingly, there has never been a master plan for the whole ensemble — the north and south aprons, the portal walkways, as well as the courtyard and Dilworth. We keep adding things, like the Octavius Catto sculpture now being installed on the south apron, without thinking about what might come next.

The role of the courtyard has evolved since City Hall opened in 1901, Levy noted. It was originally designed for deliveries, particularly of prisoners. The vans would drive up to the two towers on the south side, where sally ports led to holding cells and courtrooms. That practice ended at some point, probably around the time the Criminal Justice Center opened in 1995. The Nutter Administration ramped up the programming of the courtyard by installing cafe tables and bringing in food trucks.

Although the courtyard has none of the sculptural opulence of City Hall's exterior, it is a powerful space, a room really, whose sides are formed by the architecture of its rounded towers and smooth walls. Because it is cut off from the noise of the city, it functions like a library reading room. It makes sense, as Levy suggested, to design it as a quiet refuge, an alternative to Dilworth's nonstop activity.

This summer's pop-up promises to deliver both moods. During the day, it will offer a shady oasis with informal seating and umbrellas designed by branding and graphics specialist Exit and landscape architecture firm Sikora Wells Appel, said Kelly Lee, the city's chief cultural officer. At night, the furnishings can be reassembled to form a performance space. Riffing on the Parks on Tap program, the city plans to call it Culture on Tap. Special programs will be offered on Thursday evenings. "We want to make it a place where all Philadelphians feel comfortable," she said.

Once the summer is over, the same sentiment should drive the long-term planning for the courtyard.