People in Fishtown love their roundabout.
The traffic-calming circle where York Street and Frankford and Trenton Avenues meet has its own Facebook fan page and a new Twitter handle. Neighbors turned it into a pop-up roller disco the night before it opened last September, skating, drinking beer, dancing, and celebrating. Kids rode their bikes around and around.
It was all fun and games until a mysterious landscaper or landscapers known online as roundabout19125 started tending to the scrubby patch in the center. A garden was planted and decorative rocks added — mostly, several said, to protect it from jerks driving through it or doing doughnuts.
Then several weeks ago, the Philadelphia Streets Department sent word: No rocks allowed. The agency plans to remove them for safety reasons.
Puzzled roundabout fans started asking whether city bureaucrats have rocks in their heads.
Residents say it didn’t appear anybody was maintaining the center island, so they jumped in to fix it up. Meanwhile, people fired off letters to City Council members, area state legislators, and Streets Department officials.
The department has not widely communicated its decision, though it emailed explanations to people who sent letters and issued a statement responding to questions from The Inquirer.
For some, the dispute echoed a familiar refrain in Philadelphia life — annoyance with a city government that sometimes struggles to deliver basic services.
“It’s frustrating enough that the Streets Department can’t pick up the trash, pave the streets, or, really, do anything competently,” said Nicolas Esposito, a writer, editor, and cofounder of a community farm. He lives in East Kensington near the roundabout.
“To denigrate and diminish people who are just trying to improve their neighborhood is a blatant example of how not to engage and build partnerships with the community,” he said. He called the situation a “failure of the social contract” between democratic government and citizens.
Carting off the rocks “is a matter of traffic safety,” the Streets Department said in a statement in response to questions from The Inquirer. “The roundabout is in the middle of a busy intersection of a state route [Frankford Avenue]. .... The rocks are a hazard because the roundabout was never designed for anything big and solid in the middle of it.”
The city scrapped stoplights at the three-way intersection and in the summer of 2021 built a $1.1 million Dutch-style roundabout to control traffic in the dense neighborhood on the rough border between East Kensington and Fishtown. People were ecstatic, a rare reaction to change.
But for the state right-of-way, engineers had to adhere to design standards to ensure the roundabout could accommodate occasional use by the largest legal truck plying Pennsylvania roads: a tractor-trailer with a 62-foot wheelbase.
The East Kensington-Fishtown roundabout is more compact than many, bound by “the location of neighbors’ property lines,” the Streets Department statement said. Because of a tight turning radius, the largest tractor trailers might need to drive onto or over the center island to navigate the roundabout, officials said.
According to the design, the patch of ground is reinforced by a buried grid of hard plastic to limit damage. There’s also a truck apron to help tractor-trailer drivers. Plenty of roundabouts elsewhere, including in Pennsylvania, have flagpoles and other landscaping elements in the middle, but they are typically larger and curbs protect the center islands.
Samantha Wittchen, who lives several blocks from the roundabout, is frustrated.
In her letter to officials, she wrote the decision to take away the rocks is a case of “misplaced” priorities and would undercut the traffic safety goals of the project.
She said that before the rocks were installed, contractors and others parked pickup trucks on the lot in the middle of the roundabout.
“The willful disregard for safety and what residents and users of a space actually want appears to be a feature of Mayor Kenney’s administration,” wrote Wittchen, a sustainability consultant. “We see this disregard across Philly, from Washington Ave. to Cobbs Creek to FDR Park.”
City transportation planners were forced to scale back a planned “road diet” to slow traffic on Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia; hundreds of trees were abruptly cut down to make way for a Cobbs Creek golf course, and city leaders have proposed turning much of FDR Park into a soccer complex to support a bid for the 2026 World Cup — angering many residents.
The Streets Department said the Fishtown Business Improvement District has an agreement to maintain the center of the roundabout and other public spaces on the edges of it. Volunteers are welcome to garden there, in coordination with the BID, as long as whatever is planted in the center can “tolerate” being driven over by a big truck.
Volunteers interested in placing landscaping on the roundabout should coordinate with the Fishtown BID, the statement said.