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Giving up a piece of the street for the sake of Philly pedestrians

When a big construction project in Philadelphia needs extra space to spread out, the pedestrian is usually the one who has to give up turf. Sidewalks are ordered closed, yet somehow a way is found to keep the streets clear for motorists. For the pedestrian, that invariably means making a choice between an awkward detour and plunging into the stream of oncoming traffic.

Philadelphia pedestrians have gotten so used to yielding to the car in these situations they might not immediately appreciate the significance of the bulky Jersey barriers being installed around the Gallery in preparation for its transformation into the Fashion Outlets of Philadelphia. Those massive concrete structures will create a dedicated walkway around nearly the entire perimeter of the three-block-long shopping mall. This time, it's the motorists who are giving up space to keep pedestrians flowing.

Traffic engineers call such passageways "cattle chutes," an unfortunate name for a public amenity that should be required infrastructure in any modern city.

Yet, until recently, most construction projects here have gone up without the slightest concession to pedestrian comfort or safety. (See: W Hotel on Chestnut Street, FMC Tower on Walnut.) With so much construction throughout the city, navigating all the sidewalk closures makes a walk  more like a game of Russian roulette, especially for the elderly, blind, and disabled.

Though a few projects, like the East Market development at 11th Street, have done a bit better by including covered walkways on one side of the block, the Gallery renovation represents a big step forward for Philadelphia's beleaguered pedestrians.

Not only will the walkway occupy a full traffic lane on Market Street, the sheltered passages will be the most extensive pedestrian safety zone ever created here, according to the Streets Department's Pat O'Donnell, who bears the impressive title of right-of-way manager. While there are few gaps, the walkway encircles most of the building.

If you happened to venture near the Gallery this holiday season, you would have seen the elaborate fortification taking shape as a phalanx of flatbed trucks delivered oversize Jersey barriers to the site. These four-foot-high concrete walls have been lowered into  place along Market and Filbert Streets, from Eighth to 11th, and protective metal canopies are starting to go in. The numbered streets also are getting their own walkways. Altogether, the Gallery is installing 5,500 feet of Jersey barriers — more than a mile's worth.

Such passageways don't come cheap, which is one reason so many developers resist using them. Because the Gallery's owner, the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, will be stripping off the building's facade, it knew it would need every inch of sidewalk space to store machinery and material during the project's 18-month construction period. Its contractor, Shoemaker-Skanska JV, expects to rent the barriers at least through spring 2018. The city agreed to offset the expense by reducing its weekly fee for occupying the public right-of-way from about $6 a foot to $1.50.

It is money well spent. The walkways not only ensure that the mall's remaining tenants will be able to access the building safely, but also that the tourist parade from City Hall to Independence Mall will be uninterrupted. No one will have to risk his or her life skirting a construction fence and wading into Market Street traffic to visit the Liberty Bell.

Much of the credit for the buffer should go to Mayor Kenney, who has been crusading for walkways since his days as a councilman. In 2008, he introduced a bill requiring safe pedestrian passageways at all construction sites and imposing fees for sidewalk closures. But after the usual political haggling, the walkways were made optional. Even several recent city and state projects, like Family Court, have forced pedestrians to navigate a dangerous gauntlet.

Still, the bill helped launch an important culture change at the Streets Department. Its expectations for pedestrian safety have gradually risen, O'Donnell says. Even though Philadelphia's narrow streets can make erecting walkways  difficult — see the W Hotel, again — he says the city now tries to get its "contractors to be more conscious of their surroundings and who they're impacting."

The result of that new way of thinking could be a reallocation of the city's street grid. Where it was once assumed that cars were entitled to dominate the space between the curbs, there is now a sense that the asphalt should be more equitably shared, not just with pedestrians, but also with bicyclists and mass transit.

Market Street is a perfect test case for sharing the road. As one of Center City's two extra-wide streets, it has two travel lanes in each direction, plus a third lane on either side for parking and drop-offs. Yet, as a recent traffic study for the Old City District discovered, parts of Market Street have far more vehicle capacity than necessary. Automobile traffic at the eastern end has dropped by a third since 2000, despite significant population increases.

The experience so far with the Gallery walkway suggests something similar may be happening in the stretch between Independence Mall and City Hall. Despite taking out a full car lane on Market Street to make room for the walkway, O'Donnell says there have been no reported traffic jams. A few SEPTA stops have been temporarily eliminated or relocated for the Gallery project but, otherwise, bus service hasn't suffered.

All that makes you wonder whether the space devoted to the walkway on Market Street could eventually be converted into a protected bike lane. On Filbert Street, where the Gallery owners hope to establish a restaurant row, annexing part of the street could create wider sidewalks with room for outdoor tables.

Councilwoman Helen Gym, who recently introduced a bill to strengthen Kenney's 2008 legislation, sees the Gallery walkway as a proof of concept. "What we're seeing outside the Gallery should be the norm," she says.

Installing the walkway is like going on a diet. You learn what you can live without. Right now, Philadelphia is experiencing a real-time road diet on one of its most important streets. After everything is finished, it might not be just the Gallery that comes out looking better.

Note: The name of the contractor was corrected.