Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Vine Street Expressway Problem

One of our largest lesions of surface parking lots sits in a forgotten corner of Center City. Parking Lot Town is boxed in by the Convention Center, the Vine Street Expressway, and a vibrant Chinatown brimming with authenticity rare to most American Chinatowns - a Chinatown consistently targeted by city officials and predatory developers, loved by locals and long time residents, and abhorred by urban newbies and Yellow Tags. Asian owned businesses continue to thrive not just along Arch and Race, but also north of Vine along Callowhill. Philadelphia's Chinatown may be one of the few which continues to grow as a traditional immigrant neighborhood while relatively untouched by development geared toward gentrification or an attempt to attract a homogenized upper-middle class market, all in spite of the casm the Vine Street Expressway cuts through this neighborhood, and the parking holes that litter it's perimeter.

Much has been said regarding the Vine Street Expressway. As one of the nation's shortest interstate highways, many simply question the need for it at all. Prior to its construction which took the better half of a century, Vine Street was a significantly large avenue. Though it carried drivers across the city much slower than the VSE, considering the width of Center City, is it absolutely necessary to carry them across it at 55 miles per hour, particularly since most will be traveling it during rush hour traffic?

But whether you like it or not, it's here to stay. The question is how does it remain, and what responsibility do we have to the surrounding communities it divided? Boston's "Big Dig" often comes up as a solution. Boston's I-95 cut through the literal core of the city and spanned a much larger distance and was ripe with problems. Philadelphia's VSE is much shorter, straighter, and not surrounded by the kind of large scale, modern development that lines Boston's I-95 so capping it between 10th and Broad would be relatively simple. Relatively.

Unfortunately capping it might only produce more parking. Look at the area that caps the regional rail lines leading from Market East Station. One thing Philadelphia doesn't seem to undertsand is that it's pointless (unless you want more parking) to cap something if you never plan on building anything above it. If we capped the VSE it could be nothing but parking lots. Philadelphia seems obsessed with parking. Too much is never, ever enough. We're one of the densest city's in the US, and in most neighborhoods where the average home is about as wide as a midsized sedan, residents feel entitled to at least two cars. While people in Los Angeles work towards creating public trasit options and reducing the need for cars, Philadelphia wants more parking. I'll save that for another time.

As for the VSE, why not look at it this way? Why was it built as a recessed freeway in the first place? There's really no reason. Recessed it is less obtrusive and less visible. Why not cover the VSE with Vine Street, probably what should have been done in the first place. Move the south side of the actual street on top of the VSE, reunite it with it's northern brother, open up the sea of parking lots that the south side demolition created, and give developers a wider plain to work with between Vine and Summer. This increases the room for parking garages to service Conventioneers and hotel guests, making the remaining surface lots unfriendly, ugly, and unecessary. With the VSE underground you unite the Loft District with Chinatown, remove the eyesore of a freeway in your backyard and give investors incentive to create a whole new neighborhood.

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