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How citizens in Philly won the fight to cover I-95

PennDOT originally planned this section of I-95 to be on a 14-foot-high embankment. Only a massive citizen effort - begun in 1964 - changed those plans to what one sees today.

Artist rendering of the new Penn's Landing park planned for I-95.
Artist rendering of the new Penn's Landing park planned for I-95.Read moreDelaware River Waterfront Corp.

It is encouraging to see that plans to extend the cover over Interstate 95 across Columbus Boulevard to the Delaware River may soon be realized, but the present configuration came about only after a long and difficult battle was waged by Philadelphia citizens.

PennDOT originally planned this section of I-95 to be on a 14-foot-high embankment with tunnels at Dock and Spruce Streets going under it for access to the nascent Penn's Landing. Only a massive citizen effort — one that started in 1964 — changed those plans to what one sees today.

The Committee to Preserve Philadelphia's Historic Gateway, of which my late husband Stanhope Browne was the chairman, gathered support from many individuals and hundreds of local and national organizations. The committee worked closely with the Old Philadelphia Development Corp. and the Architect's Committee, which developed the counter proposal of a depressed section with a six-block cover. It took until 1972 to get approval, but for only the present 3½ blocks. Here is my husband's more detailed account of the story:

"After years of planning, in 1964 the 'done deal' final design of the Center City section of I-95 was unveiled to the public by the display of a model showing the highway on a high embankment as it passed between the historic waterfront (future home of Penn's Landing) and Independence National Historical Park, birthplace of our country. All pedestrian and vehicular access to the river between Spring and Bainbridge Streets was cut off except for one-block tunnels at Dock and Spruce Streets. The plan was approved by the Philadelphia Streets Department, the Pennsylvania. Department of Highways (now PennDOT) and the federal Bureau of Public Roads (now U.S. Dept. of Transportation), as well as the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, headed by the powerful Edmund Bacon, world-famous city planner. These agencies with final say were backed by the powerful trucking, automobile, highway construction, and cement lobbies."

Next, my husband described the opposition. Many people, especially those familiar with "America's most historic square mile," were horrified at the design. New groups joined forces with an established one to fight back. Stanhope wrote:

  1. The Philadelphia Architects Committee was formed primarily by a group of younger, less-established architects. It developed a counter proposal calling for depression of the highway and a six-block cover from Arch to Pine Streets. The committee built a model to show its plan.

  2. The Committee to Preserve Philadelphia's Historic Gateway (the last three words later became "America's Birthplace") was formed to serve as the out-in-front political and public relations voice of the fight. Its members were primarily young professionals living in Center City.

  3. Old Philadelphia Development Corp. (OPDC, now Center City Development Corp.), a private entity charged initially with guiding the implementation of the plan for the restoration of Society Hill, already existed, with a board of directors that included some of the most prestigious names from the business and professional communities. It acted as a behind-the-scenes liaison between the two new committees and governmental power.

The opposition's process was methodical and designed to both grow and increase the pressure on decision-makers in all three levels of government.  Stanhope continued:

  1. It very carefully articulated what was wrong with the official plan and published an elaborate document that presented the alternative plan, complete with an engineer's feasibility study.

  2. It formed a team of a few qualified people to tell the opposition story and frame the debate.

  3. It courted the news media. One OPDC director enlisted the then-publisher of the Inquirer to support the opposition. That invaluable support lasted through the entire fight.

  4. It courted city, state, and federal elected officials, calling and meeting with them individually.

  5. It created a large constituency by successfully requesting that numerous organizations simply "endorse" the effort; not give money or take political action. This step gained 90 local names, starting with the obvious historical societies, preservation groups, and nearby civic associations and expanding to include civic associations throughout the region, business and professional groups, labor unions, governmental advisory groups, and others. The effort went national in order to increase pressure on the federal government. This impressive organizational and individual constituency was the strongest weapon, apart from the rightness of the cause. It quickly gave respectability, and as it grew, political muscle.

Finally, Stanhope described the road to success which, much like other noted achievements in and around Independence Hall, required compromise, in this case the number of blocks in the cover:

"The final victory was agreement by the city, state and federal governments to depress and cover the highway for 3½ blocks. It was achieved by the relentless pressure of the three opposition organizations, by the slowly increasing number of elected-official supporters and by the news media. This result finally came in early 1972, seven years after the fight started."

After an additional 11 years of construction, the road opened in 1983 and the project was finally completed in 1991 with the addition of the Walnut Street footbridge. The new plan to extend the cover is the next step in this long process, and I hope that someday the plan for a full six-block cover will be realized.

Elizabeth S. Browne lives, writes, and teachers in Philadelphia.