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Urban forest or urban boulevard? Philadelphia tries to reimagine the Parkway — again.

This time the city is serious about taming the Parkway's roads and making it more parklike. But will that be enough to bring more activity?

The Dutch firm MVRDV wants to naturalize the Parkway with urban forests and community gardens.
The Dutch firm MVRDV wants to naturalize the Parkway with urban forests and community gardens.Read moreMVRDV

Certain public spaces in Philadelphia are like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. No matter how many times we try to make them better, they defy improvement.

Such is the case with the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the eight-lane highway that slices through the northwest quadrant of Center City. It was designed in the early 20th century to be the American Champs-Élysées, a lushly landscaped boulevard lined with cultural institutions and schools. But it is neither a good park nor a good city street.

Instead, the Parkway has become a beautiful speedway lined with hard-to-use green spaces, a tree-canopied dead zone that comes alive mainly for big private events, like Made in America, and the occasional protest, like last summer’s homeless encampment. Even though the Art Museum is the Parkway’s premier destination, there is no easy way for pedestrians to cross Eakins Oval’s car lanes to reach the building’s celebrated steps. In May, a cyclist was killed as she rounded that notorious traffic circle on her way to the Schuylkill waterfront trail.

These problems, and the city’s attempts to correct them, are hardly news. In my two decades as The Inquirer’s architecture critic, I have covered at least three planning efforts aimed at bringing more daily activity to the Parkway and making it less hostile to pedestrians. The first, presented in 1999, was a meticulously researched report by the Central Philadelphia Development Corp., an adjunct of the Center City District. While that study opened the way for several significant improvements, including Cret Cafe and Sister Cities Park, you still can’t buy a bottle of water or find a public restroom in the dreary half-mile between the Barnes Foundation and the museum steps.

Now the city is again trying to fix the Parkway. With funding from the William Penn Foundation, which also funded the CCD’s study in 1999, the Parks & Recreation Department commissioned three design teams — Design Workshop, DLand Studio + Digsau, and MVRDV — to reimagine the space. Their initial ideas were presented at a public forum July 14. After studying the proposals in more detail, city officials plan to select a winning team this fall to prepare a formal master plan. If Groundhog Day’s self-centered weatherman could eventually redeem himself, perhaps the Parkway can, too.

What struck me most about the three proposals — beyond their heavy use of architecture-speak — was how much their findings echoed the analysis put forward by the Center City District back in 1999. The CCD was the first to call out the boulevard for prioritizing motorists over pedestrians. It recommended drastically reducing the number of car lanes, turning Logan’s traffic circle back into a real square and lining the Parkway’s edges with apartments, museums, and restaurants. The CCD’s plan was far ahead of its time. Too far, as it turned out.

After its CEO, Paul Levy, unveiled the proposals at a public meeting, celebrated city planner Edmund Bacon gave a fiery speech denouncing the entire undertaking. A local restaurant took out a newspaper ad (remember those?) with a photo showing cars blissfully cruising into Center City. The tagline read: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” What may have prompted the biggest revolt, however, was Levy’s recommendation that several green Parkway sites, including the two ball fields flanking Eakins Oval, might be better used for museums or housing.

» READ MORE: After a century, Philadelphia struggles to figure out what the Parkway should be

Two decades later, many of Levy’s once radical ideas have been subsumed into the conventional wisdom. Not only does Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell enthusiastically support shrinking the Parkway’s road surface, so does Deputy Mayor Mike Carroll, a transportation engineer whose portfolio includes the Streets Department. All three design teams concur, and all recommend — as Levy previously did — that the Parkway’s express and local lanes should be consolidated into a single boulevard with fewer overall lanes. Design Workshop even suggested the road might someday be removed entirely, so the Parkway could be converted into a Philadelphia version of Central Park.

With all the emphasis on making the Parkway more parklike, there has been surprisingly little discussion about the one thing we know is guaranteed to activate the space: buildings. Yes, several teams talked about installing restaurant pavilions and a visitor center on the Parkway. All support a plan to erect a small museum at 21st Street that would house exhibits of Alexander Calder’s work. Several designers also pointed out that Pennsylvania Avenue, which runs parallel to the Parkway, could accommodate more apartment buildings.

The general lack of interest in adding residential density to the Parkway itself should come as no surprise. Levy was practically run out of town for proposing that apartments take the place of parkland. Meanwhile, the city’s competition guidelines specifically asked designers to focus on making the Parkway more equitable, and there is probably nothing that would be seen as less equitable than a high-rise building in the fashionable Art Museum neighborhood, even if it included a sizable percentage of affordable apartments.

And yet, without residents coming and going at all times of day, it will be challenging to make the Parkway’s big green expanses feel as alive as the rest of Center City.

The three teams have proposed a variety of alternatives to get more people to use the Parkway in casual, everyday ways. MVRDV, a respected Dutch firm, talks about creating an urban forest where people can stroll, and the firm showed renderings of people working a community garden. All the teams recommend more programming, more public art, and more pop-ups similar to the play space and beer garden that occupied Eakins Oval for several summers. “What if we create an optimized event square with active edges and 365 day programming in collaboration with local initiatives,” MVRDV wrote in its written proposal.

It’s not clear what MVRDV, and the other teams, mean by programming. Are they suggesting that we have daily events or just more cafés? None of the proposals fully address concerns from residents and Parkway institutions that the space has been overwhelmed by too many events. The three teams also say strikingly little about how the city should pay for operating and maintaining a bigger, busier Parkway.

All the teams have advised the city to create a management entity. But what kind? And where will it get money to run this stuff? Levy has argued that leasing Parkway land to private owners would spin off revenue that can pay for the upkeep of its public spaces. But our increasing reliance on private entities to manage public spaces — as the CCD does at Dilworth Park — raises its own complex equity issues. While the CCD has transformed Dilworth into a lively destination park, it is too often closed for private events.

Meanwhile, the parks department has not done a stellar job of managing its sections of the Parkway. Four years after completing two charming pocket parks in front of the Free Library and former Family Court, they sit empty and forlorn. We were promised all sorts of events, but there has been virtually no programming since 2017. Philadelphia’s entire park system is grossly underfunded, and the department had to fight off budget cutbacks, even after the pandemic proved that parks are an essential public service.

» READ MORE: Logan Square's handsome new parks can't fully cover scars left by I-676

The enthusiasm for making the Parkway even more parklike also gives me pause. Why propose an urban forest when they already exist a short distance away, in Fairmount and Wissahickon parks? All three teams treat the Parkway as an isolated entity, rather than part of a diverse network of city parks. There is scant mention of transforming the submerged railroad right-of-way along Pennsylvania Avenue into a park. Given the Parkway’s location in the heart of the city, perhaps it should play a different, more urban, role than these other spaces.

Several years ago, Laurie Olin, the landscape architect who worked on the CCD’s 1999 plan, came up with a revised vision for the Parkway and presented it to the Design Advocacy Group. Olin is semiretired, and he produced the proposal on his own initiative, largely out of affection for the city. This time around, he did not recommend private development along the Parkway’s main axis. But he did suggest that the ball field site on the south side of Eakins Oval should be used for apartment buildings.

I can already hear the howls, but the city should at least consider the idea of relocating that field and the one on the north side of Eakins Oval. While Philadelphia is desperately short of playing fields, according to Lovell, the money selling these Parkway sites could be used to create new facilities in more appropriate locations.

Today’s Parkway is not the Parkway of 1999. The nearby neighborhoods are denser. New towers are rising at the eastern end. The Parkway and Eakins Oval certainly need to be redesigned for pedestrians and cyclists. But once the road and its impossible crosswalks have been tamed, maybe we won’t need all those carnival rides and urban farms to attract people. Maybe a few thoughtful amenities — cafés, public restrooms, better bus service — could make the Parkway a more equitable space. And then we can finally be done with the master plans.