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How a redesign of Washington Avenue got detoured by a clash of competing needs

Philadelphia officials will unveil their latest plan for the five-lane road Tuesday night after community pressure caused them to reconsider previously announced changes.

Gabriel Pechaceck, founder of the Washington Avenue Association of Businesses and Residents, looks west as he crosses Washington Avenue while walking on 8th Street on Friday, February 25, 2022.
Gabriel Pechaceck, founder of the Washington Avenue Association of Businesses and Residents, looks west as he crosses Washington Avenue while walking on 8th Street on Friday, February 25, 2022.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

It seemed to be a wrap when the plan was announced two years ago.

Washington Avenue, the wide and often chaotic arterial with white-knuckle traffic slicing through South Philadelphia, would be narrowed from five vehicle lanes to three, with two parking-protected bike lanes, city transportation officials said in 2020, after an extensive and public outreach process. The goals were to cut crashes on one of the city’s most dangerous roadways and make it safer for pedestrians to cross.

Soon, though, a chorus of “what abouts” crashed down on the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability.

What about street parking for my customers? What about deliveries? What about extra traffic on residential side streets? What about gentrification?

OTIS planners paused the project and started a second year of outreach in fall 2021, taking care to meet and work with people who said they hadn’t been heard. Earlier this month, the city threw out the full three-lane plan and began fashioning a new one, calling it a matter of equity for people of color whose views were not reflected in the planning.

On Tuesday , officials will try again, unveiling the final roadway design at a community meeting.

One road, many uses

“It felt like this was a little bit of an attack on us, as if being in business isn’t hard enough,” said Gabriel Pechaceck, who manages a family-owned auto repair and body shop on the avenue. He said he had missed the OTIS survey because it was impossible to keep up with email and letters.

“By no means am I an obstructionist, and we all want a safer avenue,” Pechaceck said. “But do it right. I believe in science and data. We can help, and we have information about how people actually use the road that they didn’t look at.”

An aerospace engineer by training and founder of the Washington Avenue Business and Residents Association, he has pored over voluminous federal reports on road design and shared detailed suggestions with OTIS.

The unraveling of the Washington Avenue complete streets project, studied and discussed in various forms for a little more than eight years, highlights the frequent tension between sound urban or transportation policies and the needs, desires, and fears of the people who live and work in the place marked for change.

All of this in an area experiencing rapid change and a history of divisions by race and economic class.

In any case, putting a complex monster such as Washington Avenue on a strict road diet would present a challenge, with its quilt of commercial and industrial enterprises and fast-growing residential neighborhoods on either side. It runs through or touches at least eight neighborhoods from Queen Village to Little Saigon to Point Breeze. Tractor-trailers, SEPTA buses, delivery vans, cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians all share the space.

When the city reversed course, it angered many newer South Philly residents who think motor vehicles get too much deference here, to the detriment of safety and walkable blocks.

» READ MORE: Philly scraps three-lane Washington Avenue safety plan

State Sen. Nikil Saval, a Democrat who represents much of the area, said he hoped OTIS would stand by its initial conclusions and return to the full three-lane road proposal.

“It is their plan — the safest option in their professional opinion — and I give all the respect to the people in that agency who conducted such a robust outreach to thousands of people and businesses,” Saval said.

Missing voices

At the time, city officials were proud of the breadth of public engagement, including 5,458 survey responses in four languages.

But soon OTIS and elected officials began hearing concerns, especially from residents on the west side of the avenue, in Grays Ferry and Point Breeze, a historically Black neighborhood that has seen a substantial influx of white residents.

Albert Littlepage, leader of the Point Breeze Community Development Coalition, said many of his neighbors didn’t see the OTIS survey, which was mostly online because of COVID-19, and were shocked that such a major decision was in the works.

“This comes down to gentrification of the neighborhood,” Littlepage said. “Most of the people moving in are white and upper class, and they want to tell us how to live, what’s best. It’s insulting. I think they believe we don’t care about the safety of our loved ones.”

Point Breeze residents were concerned the full three-lane plan would increase congestion, potentially delay emergency responses by police and fire personnel, and push overflow traffic onto smaller residential streets, among other things. They said other safety measures could help without shrinking the vital corridor, such as new lighting and upgraded traffic signals that allow more time for pedestrians to cross.

Littlepage and other community leaders believe that urbanist groups such as 5th Square and the Bicycle Coalition, champions of the strict road diet, have outsized influence. Group members dominate discussions on social media, and Littlepage said they have sometimes misrepresented the opposition.

“Their voice shouldn’t be louder than ours,” he said.

Dena Driscoll, cochair of 5th Square, said in response, “The fact that a few dozen people were able to hold up a safety change supported by thousands of near neighbors and every school community touching Washington Avenue should be proof enough that urbanists do not have too much power, but that City Council does.”

Claudia Sherrod, a longtime Point Breeze resident and activist, said police district data suggest that Washington Avenue has fewer traffic crashes than road diet advocates imply. The city says at least four people died and six were seriously injured on the roadway between 2012 and 2018.

“One is too many, but they’re making it seem 10 times worse than it is,” said Sherrod, president of Point Breeze Community Network Plus.

She noted that the city was not rushing to improve safety on Washington Avenue when her children were walking to school, and it didn’t assign crossing guards to Point Breeze.

Sherrod also wants more regulation of cyclists, who she believes often “put themselves in harm’s way” by not stopping at intersections and swerving around people in crosswalks. “That doesn’t mean they should be hurt or killed,” she said, but urban cycling “causes more problems than it’s worth. We need to make sure bicyclists have a license or permit and insurance.”

The city reconsiders its plan

When the complaints came in, OTIS began to reexamine the process and realized the first survey found larger-than-expected support for the fewest traffic lanes — about 70%, compared with a roughly 50/50 split when the issue was discussed with the community in 2014, said Mike Carroll, the city’s managing director for transportation. He said the neighborhood had changed by 2020 but not by that much.

There is a long history of people of color not being consulted much on major transportation decisions in Philadelphia, such as the elevated portion of the Roosevelt Expressway casting gloom over Nicetown and the Vine Street Expressway splitting Chinatown.

“What people say is they feel like they’re being erased,” Carroll said in a recent Inquirer interview. “We have to hear that. ... When we did the online survey and we came forward and basically stated, ‘This is the final [plan],’ we really were rubbing salt in a lot of old wounds. We have an obligation not to let that stand. It’s uncomfortable, and I’m sure I look like a jackass to a lot of people, but that’s meaningful.”

Unlike scientific polls and market research, the survey did not ask respondents their race or other demographic information, Carroll said, adding that was a mistake. He believes that a slimmed-down Washington Avenue would still have room to accommodate its usual traffic and any spillover to residential streets could be managed — but acknowledged that there are no hard data on that in the OTIS analysis.

“So I can’t prove to you what’s going to happen,” Carroll said. “For people who are saying I’m inviting, you know, carmageddon, I [also] can’t prove to them that it’s not going to happen.”

Two options are left as OTIS polishes up details for Tuesday’s big reveal: a four-lane plan for the length of the road between Fourth Street and Grays Ferry Avenue, and a mixed approach in which some blocks would be narrowed to three travel lanes and others would have four travel lanes.

Many people closely following the issue think the city is leaning toward a mixed approach, which would be a classic compromise and allow for three lanes around schools and parks.

Pechaceck, the car shop manager, said mixing the number of lanes would require several traffic merges, increasing the chance of accidents. And he is disappointed that the city has waited to take smaller steps such as adjusting traffic signals, an idea he has pushed for years and “an essentially free change being held hostage” to the planning process.

Whatever the city decides, though, Washington Avenue will be “better than it is now,” Pechaceck said. “I just pray for the best.”

City’s Washington Avenue open house

Tuesday, March 1, at 6:30 p.m.

In person at the Christian Street YMCA, 1724 Christian St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19146. Masks required.

The meeting will also stream live on Facebook @PhillyOTIS.