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Changing Skyline: For tourists and city, not re-created equal

Reconstructed Independence Mall draws bigger crowds but keeps residents at bay.

The Independence Visitor Center and, north of it, the National Constitution Center have helped increase the park's popularity and reduce its vastness. The facades along Sixth Street, however, offer no entry. (David M Warren/Staff)
The Independence Visitor Center and, north of it, the National Constitution Center have helped increase the park's popularity and reduce its vastness. The facades along Sixth Street, however, offer no entry. (David M Warren/Staff)Read more

In early 2000, Independence Mall was an American Versailles with brick colonnades, great tiered fountains, and row upon row of straight-backed trees, arrayed across the park's three city blocks like soldiers awaiting review.

Then bulldozers reduced every last piece of the 30-year-old ensemble to rubble.

Today, a mere decade after that demolition project, a gentler, less monumental mall has risen in Philadelphia's historic heart - one that lures three times as many tourists as before. In a city that has trouble following through on big projects, the improved park offers a lavish buffet of new attractions, including the just-opened President's House and National Museum of American Jewish History, instead of purely ceremonial spaces.

The reconstructed mall is a mecca for tourists, who can be seen on warm days hugging close to the railroad-car lineup of new buildings along Sixth Street, lunching in shady groves, ogling the Liberty Bell, and clamoring for brochures and bathrooms at the new Independence Visitor Center.

As for city residents' enjoying the park, well, not so much.

The $300 million reconstruction of the '70s-era national park was the project of a generation for Philadelphia, on par in its ambition and cost with Chicago's hugely popular Millennium Park. Like the Windy City's undertaking, the renovation of Independence Mall gave Philadelphia a large, public greensward downtown. Both were carried out thanks to generous infusions of private money.

It's a good bet, however, that few Philadelphians feel the same affection for their new park that Chicagoans do.

Unlike buildings, landscape projects rarely come to a neat conclusion because they take so long to reach maturity. Such was the case with Independence Mall, a construction site until the dedication of the President's House this month. With that memorial and the Jewish museum on Fifth Street, it's possible to say the mall is done and ready for evaluation.

The project's completion comes as the city is gearing up for the reconstruction of other failed public spaces - the Parkway, Dilworth Plaza, and, in a certain sense, I-95. Organizers of those projects will surely look to the mall for guidance on how best to cater to visitors' needs. The question is: Can they also be designed for the pleasure of Philadelphians?

The ambitious mall renovation, planned by Philadelphia architects Laurie D. Olin and Bernard Cywinski, was launched with two big, yet distinct, objectives: The first was to turn the desultory historic area into a powerful tourist magnet. The designers also sought to repair the cruel gash that had been cut into the city's oldest, and most architecturally rich, neighborhood when the three blocks were razed to create the mall in the '50s.

As hoped, the historic area has been reinvigorated, with two million visitors annually, up from 650,000 in the mid-'90s.

But of the companion goal of suturing those blocks back into the grid, and reintegrating them into the swirl of urban life, the project has fallen short. If anything, the mall remains as cut off from its surroundings as ever.

Because of the mall's role in promoting America's history, no one expected it to evolve into an exuberant playground exactly like Millennium Park, which includes a Frank Gehry-designed summer band shell and an engaging collection of public art. But given its proximity to such thriving neighborhoods as Old City, Society Hill, Chinatown, and Wash West, the mall could have become a stronger residential amenity if the project had done a better job of breaking down the physical barriers on its edges.

By the time Olin and Cywinski started work on their master plan in the mid-'90s, the mall's original design was widely considered a failure. Not only did its vast scale and pompous layout dwarf diminutive Independence Hall, but also the space lacked a natural draw; there were no full-time attractions, no lawns for impromptu games. But the worst aspect of the old mall was that it formed an empty canyon severing Old City from the rest of downtown.

Olin, a renowned landscape architect, devised his design as an antidote to those conditions. Where the original design emphasized the mall's monumentality with hard surfaces, a symmetrical layout, and strong axial relationships, Olin called for a more off-kilter, populist design with a soft lawn and curving pathways. He narrowed the mall's wide girth by populating its Sixth Street edge with destination buildings. He made the excruciatingly long expanse feel shorter by giving it a terminus - the National Constitution Center. And because there had been so few entry points, Olin proposed reestablishing the old alley streets, enabling pedestrians to take midblock shortcuts through the park.

As good as these ideas looked on paper, implementing them was another matter.

Whenever the mall project encountered any roadblocks, interviews with organizers suggest, the solutions tended to favor the comfort of tourists over the healing of the city's wounds. The security demands that followed Sept. 11, 2001, only made it harder to stitch the National Park Service's property back into the city fabric. City leaders had to spend years fighting park officials who wanted a perimeter wall.

The conflicting needs of tourists and residents are familiar to many big cities, especially as hospitality takes over from smokestack industries as a provider of low-skill jobs. Yet even as the importance of tourism grows, cities recognize that good amenities are essential to retaining residents and attracting new ones. Their incomes and businesses also fuel the local economy.

Still, for all the talk about improved connections, not one of the three new buildings on the mall's west side - the Visitor, Liberty Bell, and Constitution Centers - features a significant entrance facing Sixth Street. Blank walls run for long stretches. Meanwhile, on Fifth Street, the only new building is a restroom - a solid brick box that sadly acts as a bookend to the Liberty Bell Center. It was built for tourists' convenience although the Visitor Center restrooms are a block away.

The problems on Sixth Street can pretty much be blamed on the poor urbanism of the architecture, produced by three different firms. But Fifth Street fails because the Philadelphia Parking Authority balked at modernizing the garage under the mall's middle block.

Like many older garages, it was built without regard to pedestrians. Originally, two long access ramps monopolized the frontage on Fifth and Sixth Streets, keeping people from flowing naturally into the park. And since the garage's roof was significantly above street level - similar to the garage at JFK Plaza - the middle block was higher than either of its neighbors.

All these problems might have been fixed, but the PPA - then run by Rina Cutler, now deputy mayor for transportation - balked at the added costs. The PPA had already spent about $16 million on garage improvements. That enabled designers to convert the Sixth Street ramp to a compact spiral, but the long Fifth Street ramp was left in place to save money.

Because of the outmoded garage, the mall's crucial middle block is a disaster, functionally and aesthetically. Had the Fifth Street ramp been removed, the elegant cafe designed by Erdy McHenry could have been placed at sidewalk level instead of a full story above the fray, and thus helped entice pedestrians from Old City into the park.

Since the garage roof poked above street level, Olin had to camouflage the structure with landscape elements. Visitors to the middle block encounter an ungainly grass mound, a hillock that compromises views and further discourages strollers from wandering through the park.

To the original proponents of the mall's reconstruction - a group that includes the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Park Service, and city leaders - the huge increase in out-of-town visitors more than makes up for the design weaknesses.

"It's great to look down at the beehive of activity," said Dennis Reidenbach, who headed Independence National Historical Park during much of the project. "If you had told me in 1993 that we'd come up with a vision that would produce $300 million worth of investment on the mall, I'd have been skeptical."

Olin is more open about his disappointment with the mall's urban design. "Sixth Street is not as good as I hoped it would be," he said this fall during a walk past the unrelenting brick facade of Kallmann McKinnell & Wood's Visitor Center. PPA "made life hard for us all," he added. "We inherited a terrible garage that was too high."

He also acknowledged that the focus on tourists had contributed to several larger design problems.

"Paris didn't build parks for tourists," Olin observed. "It built them for itself. If you want great tourist places, you have to build them first as places for yourself."

To be sure, Philadelphians do go to the mall for major events. On July 4, the first block hosted an emotional reenactment of a famous Frederick Douglass antislavery speech. Crowds assemble on the lawn for concerts by the Philly Pops, the city's annual gay-pride event, and protests. There are even occasional games of pickup softball. But such popular activities are the exception.

The Park Service never installed the Peaceable Kingdom playground Olin designed for the middle block, an attraction that would have served nearby residents. And there are still no midblock crosswalks so people can cross safely from Old City to the alley pathways Olin created.

Charlene Mires, a Rutgers University-Camden historian and author of Independence Hall in American Memory, has another gripe: "You actually need a permit to use the First Amendment plaza. The physical space is in service to the tourist economy."

That might be expected given that the tourist economy drove the project.

The mall improvements were first proposed in the mid-'90s by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which believed that a robust tourism industry could help secure the city's economic future.

Philadelphia wasn't doing a very good job of marketing itself to visitors, Pew president Rebecca W. Rimel recalled. The existing Visitor Center in the national park was precluded from promoting the city's other attractions, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and restaurants. Philadelphia had become a "drive by" for visitors who saw no reason to stay overnight, Rimel said.

Pew responded by launching the campaign to build a privately funded Visitor Center that would highlight and market all that the region had to offer. Pew not only gave $20 million to the mall, but it the foundation also lobbied other donors and political leaders to support the project, which soon expanded beyond a new Visitor Center. Unlike Chicago, Philadelphia struggled for years to raise money because Park Service rules forbid the sale of naming rights.

As the scope of the redesign grew, tourist attractions remained the focus. Even when the architects were debating critical urban-design issues, Rimel said, she stayed neutral.

"I didn't have an opinion," about design issues, she said. "I just wanted to see the civic space redone."

But many of the design debates, such as whether to rebuild the garage, had profound consequences.

Early in the process, another design firm working on the master plan, Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, argued that the mall was too big and advocated that it be shrunk to one block or possibly two. Then-Mayor Edward G. Rendell liked the idea because the third block could be sold for a hotel. But the Park Service balked at giving up real estate, and no one had the power to overturn the decision.

Tourist issues also trumped important urban-design concerns. For instance, the Visitor Center is so uninviting because its backers insisted on having two theaters to highlight city history, even though the information is available elsewhere in the historic area. Since theaters can't have windows, the result is the blank wall on Sixth Street, where human activity should be visible.

If that weren't bad enough, the Park Service vetoed a window on Market Street for the center's bookstore. It felt that the sight of commerce would demean the mall's dignity. Instead, the front of the building is camouflaged with a hard-to-decipher artwork by Alison Sky. Its plexiglass screens are now badly yellowed, and cigarette butts gather in the crannies.

Venturi Scott Brown, which participated during the early planning in the mid-'90s, argued on aesthetic grounds for shrinking the mall. But it may also be too big for the Park Service to maintain. This summer, the east and west sides of the Liberty Bell Center were left unplanted and turned muddy in the rain. Vines that were supposed to grow over an arbor were stunted. During one of my visits for this story, I found the mall's Fifth Street restroom already filthy at 9 a.m.

The federal ownership of the mall has compromised its success in myriad ways. With its shady perch above the Christ Church burial ground, the cafe could be a charming place to enjoy a meal and a glass of wine - if the park allowed alcohol, or if the operator offered more than a snack-truck menu.

The new mall hasn't done much for nearby businesses, either. Although there are new restaurants on Chestnut Street, several large buildings remain empty on the mall's immediate periphery. It took the entire decade for the stately Lafayette Building, at Fifth and Chestnut Streets, to find an occupant, a Kimpton hotel that is expected to open next year.

The mall is vastly improved in one key respect. Thanks to the reconstruction, the shrine to the American ideals of freedom and tolerance has made a place for three previously disfranchised groups: African Americans through the President's House, Jews through the new museum, and gays through a historic marker at Sixth and Chestnut Streets.

Unfortunately, as long as Independence Mall remains an island in the city, it will mainly be tourists who appreciate the improvements.