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Seeking peace and quiet on the Schuylkill River Trail, finding noisy fans instead | Inga Saffron

Ventilation equipment at the base of 2400 Market ruins the ambience of the Schuylkill River park.

Only about 50 feet separate the ventilation equipment at 2400 Market from the Schuylkill River Park trail.
Only about 50 feet separate the ventilation equipment at 2400 Market from the Schuylkill River Park trail.Read more--- Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer

Since the day it opened 15 years ago, the Schuylkill River Trail has been a people magnet, attracting runners, cyclists, fishermen, and picnickers to its grassy banks. More recently, the riverfront also has become a development magnet, luring high-rise apartments, office towers, a Children’s Hospital campus, and now, a new corporate headquarters for Aramark.

The expanding lineup of elegant glass buildings shows how far Philadelphia has come in its efforts to reclaim the riverfront, once home to coal depots, freight yards, and other messy industrial uses. The towers extend the life of the city right to the Schuylkill’s edge. In return, they get a prime public amenity as their front yard.

While the riverfront’s new occupants have been eager to trade on the park’s ambience, they have been less willing to treat the city-funded space with the respect it deserves. There already are several long blank walls facing the park because so many of the new buildings sit on top of parking garages.

Now a new intrusion threatens to diminish the park experience even more. Rather than locate the ventilation equipment for 2400 Market on the roof, the developer, PMC, has installed a noisy and unsightly array of fans and ducts at the base of the building, which houses Aramark and several other tenants. Separated by the CSX and Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, the equipment sits roughly 50 feet from the park.

The noise from the ventilation equipment hits you like a punch in the face as you walk along the river. Near Chestnut Street, a long row of industrial fans whirs like a prop plane readying for takeoff. Those fans provide cooling for the CenturyLink server farm in the building’s basement. A few yards north, at the Market Street entrance to the riverfront trail, a tangle of ventilation ducts produces a constant, rattling drone.

How people respond to noise varies enormously, so I downloaded a phone app developed by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety to measure the impact of the ground-level equipment. On three separate occasions, the readings from the bank of fans averaged about 80 decibels and went as high as 100. That’s about as loud as a tractor motor, except that these fans run nonstop — morning, noon and night. The noise from the ventilation ducts was even louder, averaging 87 decibels and reaching a peak of 127.

“In an occupational setting, we consider anything over 85 hazardous and require protection,” Chuck Kardous, a research engineer for the federal institute, told me.

To be fair, the river trail isn’t exactly a pristine nature spot. The Schuylkill Expressway hugs the opposite bank of the river, and the thrum of traffic is an ever-present soundtrack in the park. When the freight trains roll past the trail, the screech of metal wheels on the tracks is loud enough to drown out both the highway and the ventilation equipment.

The difference is that the highway and the freight trains were already in existence when park was created. The rattling fans and ducts were imposed by PMC long after the trail had established itself as one of the city’s most popular parks, used by thousands of people every week. It takes real chutzpah to degrade the amenity that made your building an attraction in the first place. It’s not just the noise; it’s the way the fans look, too.

How could the city allow such an intrusion in one of its premier parks?

It turns out that no city agency regulates the placement of ventilation equipment — not the Department of Licenses & Inspections, which issues building permits, nor the Office of Air Management, which administers the city’s noise laws. The air management agency will investigate if someone complains, but it doesn’t take preemptive action to ensure that loud noise doesn’t become a problem, spokesman James Garrow explained in an email. So far, no one has complained to the agency about PMC’s ventilation fans.

In most office buildings, ventilation equipment is located on the roof, out of earshot of people at street level. That’s where the cooling fans were housed before PMC acquired 2400 Market in 2015.

But after PMC snagged Aramark as a lead tenant, the developer agreed to add five floors to the structure, an old car factory that was previously home to the Design Marketplace. Since CenturyLink, which runs the server farm in the basement, was staying put during construction, PMC temporarily relocated its cooling fans to ground level while the work proceeded. And that’s where they remain today.

Although Aramark moved its 1,500 employees into the building over the Christmas holidays, there is no indication that PMC plans to return CenturyLink’s cooling fans to the roof. PMC Vice President Adriano Calvanese, who oversaw the Aramark project, said that running electrical cables to the top of the building — now nine stories — would be a major technical challenge. There might be a way to do it, he acknowledged, “but it would take a lot of money.”

The Schuylkill River Development Corp., which runs the park, isn’t happy with PMC’s decision but has no plans to protest. “It would be nicer if it were quieter, but it doesn’t bother me,” said Joseph Syrnick, the group’s president. “There was already noise.”

The fans and ventilation ducts are unlikely to affect the hearing of anyone who occasionally runs or bikes along the Schuylkill trail, but the noise pollution certainly detracts from the experience of being near the river.

Exposure to noise, however, has long been known to increase stress, said Arline Bronzaft, a New York-based environmental psychologist who is a leading expert on noise pollution. It’s one the main reasons we seek out urban green spaces in the first place. “If you have a park where people are trying to get away from the loud din of the city, why would you impose more noise on them?” Bronzaft asked.

The Schuylkill trail isn’t the only park bombarded with the noise from cooling fans. The new viaduct Rail Park is sandwiched between two immense buildings that house equipment that support the internet. They’re located near the former Reading Railroad line for the same reason CenturyLink is at 2400 Market: Most of the nation’s fiber optic cable runs alongside rail lines. As we store more of our information in the cloud, urban server farms are likely to proliferate.

Philadelphia’s Rail Park has tried to mitigate the noise from the server farms. The steel panel at the entrance, which tells the story of the Reading Viaduct, doubles as a sound baffle, reducing the intrusion slightly.

PMC could take some lessons from the other new corporate headquarters that just opened in Philadelphia, the Comcast Technology Center. The tech giant hired an acoustic consultant to mitigate the noise from its server floor, which vents onto Cuthbert Street. The firm, Metro Acoustics, advised Comcast to buy super-quiet fans and install baffles, said company president Felicia Doggett. “We did that work pre-construction,” she noted.

While PMC won’t be able to eliminate the ventilation noise at 2400 Market, baffling would help, Doggett believes.

The mitigation effort also would benefit PMC. One of the nicest amenities PMC created at 2400 Market is a public promenade that overlooks the Schuylkill trail. PMC hopes to line the walkway with restaurants and outdoor tables. Before they sign leases, prospective tenants may want to take some decibel readings at the southern end near CenturyLink’s fans. My meter showed the noise there is even worse than in the park.