If I had to pick a favorite Philadelphia intersection, it would be the great asphalt estuary where Erie and Germantown Avenues flow onto North Broad. Like a real estuary, it is a place of churning energy and stunning diversity. Buildings in a half-dozen styles line the edges, holding the sprawling crossroads in check and giving it an almost piazza-like feel.
Commuters and schoolchildren wade through the traffic, changing buses, descending into the subway, stopping to feed on the local bounty: Max’s cheesesteaks, Dwight’s Southern Bar-B-Que, Richy’s Seafood. And presiding above it all is a sort-of lighthouse, the crumbling, windowless, Beury tower, famous for its cheeky graffiti advertising a priapic condition in 10-foot letters.
Despite its vitality, this is a place that has been grossly neglected by the city. The intersection functions as North Philadelphia’s downtown, with two dozen shops, a bank, hardware store, legal clinic, and neighborhood library, and yet crosswalks are nonexistent at key points. Buses dump commuters onto a narrow peninsula wedged between traffic lanes on Erie Avenue, leaving them to navigate buckling trolley tracks. The subway stop has no elevator. And as Temple University’s nearby medical campus has expanded, this stretch of North Broad has evolved into a brutal speedway that has maimed seven and killed two since 2013. Don’t even ask about bike lanes; there are none.
The intersection has been in the news lately for two very different events. Broad and Erie is where Philly Free Streets terminated in a joyous block party on Aug. 3. Less than two weeks later, an attempt to serve a search warrant on a suspected drug-dealer on 15th Street turned into an eight-hour shootout with police. The neighborhood is still recovering from the trauma.
While it has taken far too long, the city is finally getting ready to give the community hub at Broad and Erie the attention it deserves. Last week, officials launched a multi-department initiative to reconfigure the complex intersection and make it safer. The goal is to claw back excess asphalt for pedestrians and transit riders. Also on the city’s to-do list is helping property owners fix up their buildings as a first step in strengthening the Germantown Avenue shopping corridor. Ideally, Broad and Erie could end up feeling more like a town square and less like a highway interchange.
Residents and merchants who attended last week’s kickoff community meeting at Zion Baptist Church were happy to hear that Broad and Erie is now on the city’s radar. But it was not lost on them that these ambitious plans are being developed just as the neighborhood — known as both Nicetown and Tioga — has started to attract the interest of developers.
The Gothic-style Beury tower, which started out in 1926 as the National Bank of North Philadelphia, is about to be converted into a hotel, Shift Capital’s Brian Murray told me. Assuming that the company can finalize a community benefits agreement with neighborhood civic groups, he said, renovations could begin in the spring. Civic leaders say the hotel will be a Marriott.
A Marriott on North Broad Street? The development would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. When Shift bought the 14-story bank building in 2012, it envisioned an affordable housing development, maybe with a health clinic. Now it’s talking about a sit-down restaurant on the hotel’s ground floor and an apartment building next door on a largely vacant site, perhaps with some office space on the lower floors.
Many local residents are excited about the prospect of a hotel because it would have more jobs than an apartment building, said Jeff Harley, executive director of Called to Serve, a nonprofit that offers training and other services. Even though you can see the skyscrapers of Center City from Broad and Erie, nearly 46 percent of neighborhood residents live in poverty, significantly more than the city average. One provision in the proposed community benefits agreement would require the hotel to hire half its workers from the Nicetown-Tioga zip code. Community leaders want to see similar guarantees for construction work, always a tricky issue when the city’s largely white building trade unions are involved.
As for the changes to the streets, the city is still a long way from producing a final design. But the initial proposal identifies Germantown Avenue as the source of the problem. As the diagonal boulevard slashes through Broad and Erie on its way to Chestnut Hill, it creates a 280-foot-long stretch that is virtually uncrossable by pedestrians. The Streets Department wants to turn the chaotic crossroads in to a standard, two-street intersection, just Broad and Erie.
To do that, Germantown Avenue would effectively terminate east of Broad at Erie Avenue. While the historic diagonal would pick up again on the west side, it would no longer be an uninterrupted through-street. Motorists — and the Route 23 bus — would have to detour onto Broad, before getting back on Germantown Avenue.
One of the benefits of this arrangement is that it would allow the city to create a triangular plaza, roughly twice the size of the Grays Ferry Triangle on South Street. The new space could be similarly landscaped and outfitted with seating. Not only would it be amenity for the neighborhood — and presumably the hotel — it would narrow the Broad Street speedway and help to calm traffic.
The other big piece of the city’s traffic proposal focuses on Erie Avenue. The city would remove the old trolley platform and tracks, and create a gracious transfer station for the 6,000 bus riders who pass through the intersection daily.
These would be big changes, so perhaps it is no surprise that there were almost as many opinions as participants at last week’s community meeting. Some worried the new configuration would make driving more cumbersome. Others, like Chinita Bradshaw, argued that “a little congestion could be a good thing” by forcing motorists to slow down. Most wanted assurances that the new plaza would be properly managed and programmed. (Maybe the hotel could help?)
The main concern came from merchants with shops on Germantown Avenue, a street that could use a strong dose of TLC. As part of this early proposal, the Route 23 bus would be diverted onto Broad Street for part of its run. “I understand the safety aspect, but we need the foot traffic,” said Kimberly Nguyen, whose family owns Kimlynn Nails & Spa. A second community meeting is being planned for December.
Sorting out an intersection this complicated won’t be easy. But finding a way to prepare the neighborhood for the coming development may prove an even bigger challenge. Nearly half the residents are renters and could easily be displaced.
Many live in grand, Dutch-style townhouses developed in the late 19th century by Wright & Prentzel, the same developers who built the historic Hawthorne Hall in Powelton Village. Yet almost none of the neighborhood’s stunning architecture is historically protected. After half a century of disinvestment, there isn’t time to waste. Streets Department officials expect it will take two years to come up with a final design and raise an estimated $4 million for the project.
Broad and Erie’s charm comes from its peculiar mix of excess and elegance, so the city should use a light touch. By all means, straighten out the street and make it safe, but keep the twists and turns that make this an authentic Philadelphia place.