A public park, an al fresco restaurant, a sculpture garden, and a gateway to the city's cultural treasures - the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and city planners hope to wring all this from 200 feet of street to be closed to traffic next year.

The expectations are great for the half-block of Cherry Street just west of Broad, where a $3 million plaza is planned to unite the two parts of the academy and pull visitors into the city's museums along the Parkway.

If City Council legislation is passed today as expected and signed by Mayor Nutter, academy officials will start designing a plaza, with construction beginning in the summer and a March 2011 completion date - just in time for the scheduled opening of the newly expanded Convention Center.

The plaza, officials maintain, is intended to provide a friendly welcome to visitors whose first real experience of Philadelphia may be walking out of the Convention Center's imposing facade directly across Broad Street.

"It will add an element to the Convention Center that it has never had - a beautiful outside space that is readily accessible," said Don Caldwell, chairman of the academy's board of directors for the last 12 years.

"For many people, it's going to be the first thing they see in Philadelphia," academy president Ted Lewis said. "It's important for Philadelphia and people's sense of Philadelphia - that it's a safe city, a sensible city, a city that values art. It's a way of linking up the Convention Center with the museum mile and really making it a vital part of Philadelphia."

Indeed, anyone stepping outside the expanded Convention Center onto Broad would likely first notice the academy's majestic Victorian Gothic structure, designed by famed 19th-century architect Frank Furness. And just to the north of the academy is the Hamilton Building, an early-20th-century structure that has its roots as a showroom and storage facility for the Gomery-Schwartz Motor Co.

Caldwell is also working to attract a top-level restaurateur to establish a landmark restaurant in the Hamilton Building. Another plan would include a major piece of outdoor sculpture and a sculpture garden alternating the works of teachers and students.

Caldwell said he had envisioned the pedestrian park and plaza when the academy acquired the Hamilton Building in the 1990s.

The vision is a decade old, but had seen little movement, even with the 2003 pledge of $2 million by academy board member Marguerite Lenfest and her husband, H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest. The city has pledged the other $1 million.

The project got moving at lightning speed in the last month, however, after the Lenfests expressed impatience with the progress and city and academy officials thought it was in danger.

Councilman Darrell L. Clarke, whose district includes the academy and that section of Cherry Street, introduced a bill to close off the street, held a public hearing, and is ready for full Council approval within two weeks.

Alan Greenberger, executive director of the city's Planning Commission and an acting deputy mayor, said the logistics made better sense once the Convention Center swallowed up the east side of Cherry Street as part its design. That made closing Cherry just west of Broad less burdensome to traffic; drivers heading south on Broad can turn right on the next street, Arch, to head toward the Parkway.

City planners have long sought better ways to connect the city's two most prized resources - the history of Old City and the arts and culture of the Parkway. Logan Square Neighborhood Association president Sam Little said this was a start. The association tendered a letter to the city saying it did not oppose the project, but expected to be consulted through the design process.

Caldwell said the academy still had long-term plans to build galleries underneath Cherry Street, connecting the academy's two buildings. But that could be a decade away, and is not part of this phase.

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 215-854-4565 or jshields@phillynews.com.