Sunday, April 28, 2013

Embracing the Vine Street Expressway

Parks are wonderful urban assets. William Penn's city was built around them. They clean the air and provide recreation and leisure space. Some of the city's most desirable addresses crowd around these spaces, which is why parks are the most common go to idea for addressing our urban woes.

The towering condos around Rittenhouse and Washington Square make it easy to forget that Fairmount Park, Centennial Park, and the Philadelphia Zoo share zip codes with some of the city's worst slums. Parks are great, but they don't grow great neighborhoods. Great addresses and great parks are mutually exclusive.

Looking at that reality calls into question the recent push to convert industrial relics and transportation causeways into park space. Cap the Vine Street Expressway, and make it a park. Cap I-95, and make it a park. Open up the Reading Viaduct, and make it a park. The latter is probably the most conceivable strictly because the structure is already built and unused.

Some of the more absurd proposals have even called to convert Logan Square's unused rail tunnels into a subterranean and quasi enclosed park.

The Vine Street Expressway in particular doesn't realistically stand to benefit from this canned response, particularly the stretch east of Broad, the stretch that most adversely impacts the streetscape. West of Broad, much of it is barely noticeable from the sidewalk. Built before the eastern leg of the Vine Street Expressway, the western side has had more time to evolve and prime real estate forced the city to make it more friendly to the surrounding cultural institutions.

East of Broad, the Vine Street Expressway is a concrete river disrespectfully detaching Callowhill from Chinatown and very few strides have been made to improve the relationship between these two neighborhoods. But the truth is this relationship has always been poor. This post industrial corridor has been the city's dumping ground for necessary evils.

Viaducts, highway chasms, and rail tunnels keep the logistics of development tricky. Narrow lots along Vine Street's southern lane don't offer the land needed for high volume urban projects, and the streetscape isn't pleasant enough for row homes. Capping the expressway and converting it into a park might change this, but the cash isn't there to take that risk.

What so few consider is Vine Street is what it's always been: a major urban corridor. Instead of trying to hide centuries of use as a crosstown ferry only to take on the Sisyphean task of transforming this urban landscape into a quaint parkway, embrace what Vine Street was, is, and let's face it, always will be. Instead of covering up this engineering feat, make it a focal point of this neighborhood. Turn it into an art installation, illuminate it in blue LEDs, and treat it like you would a river.

Don't stop there. Let's have fun with this. Nearby residents avoid Vine Street because it's little more than parking lots, which means they're less likely to care what developers want to do with it. Let's make it an architectural playground. Eliminate any height restrictions. I'm obviously daydreaming here, but imagine a Vine Street Expressway lined with skyscrapers rivaling West Market Street. Instead of an eyesore we want to hide with a bunch of narrow parks, it looks a lot more like Sheikh Zayed Road.

While transforming Vine Street into a little Dubai is a conceptual daydream, Philadelphians could stand to occasionally stray from our provincial ideal that suggests addressing every problem with parks, scaled development, and taxes, particularly when those ideals come packaged in master plans eyeballing the middle of the 21st Century instead of tomorrow.

Let's look at what we can do with the Vine Street Expressway now, what developers and architects would do with it if we let them play, and how private money could tackle this obstacle.

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