It looks like the powers that be in Fairmount Park have been cruising the internet for market research, finally addressing some of the obstacles that keep the Schuylkill River's wild success from spilling over into Fairmount Park's Lemon Hill and Strawberry Mansion.
However they've consulted PennPraxis, Philadelphia's captain of the Master Plan Pipe Dream. PennPraxis does what it does well. But they're visionary designers sought for ideas, not business minded developers. When ideas are sourced from PennPraxis they prepare a vision as if they control the available (and sometimes unavailable) land with unlimited funds, ignoring financial realities.
Were money no object, some good ideas have been addressed. The primary focus seems to be connecting the river to the park space east of Kelly Drive. The plan proposes a crosswalk at Strawberry Mansion, enhancing pedestrian quality and slowing Kelly Drive's notoriously fast traffic. But Strawberry Mansion doesn't host Kelly Drive's heaviest swell of pedestrians, many of whom walk the Schuylkill from Boathouse Row to Girard Avenue and turn around.
Girard Avenue's missing piece seems insignificant given PennPraxis's grand proposal of a new, public boathouse, small boat rentals, and new gardens. Girard Avenue may have been ignored because the east side of Kelly Drive at Girard tends to get very urban very quickly. But a Girard Avenue crosswalk would do more than just control traffic and provide a safe passage for residents and recreationalists. It would provide visitors with a sidewalk to the Philadelphia Zoo and Centennial Park, and offer those who turnaround at the rock a loop back to Boathouse Row over Lemon Hill.
PennPraxis's sprawling ambition in Fairmount Park is indicative of many oversized attempts to produce a cohesive master plan. Echoing numerous attempts to redesign Penn's Landing, these ideas ignore space that currently succeeds. Neglecting the space's current assets such as Lloyd Hall and the Philadelphia Police Department's boathouse upstream, PennPraxis suggests building an additional public boathouse rather than improving or expanding those that already exist.
Perhaps the most shortsighted element in the design is its overall approach, which spreads down from Strawberry Mansion from areas less traveled, rather than branching out from trails that already succeed. Essentially the plan gambles on its own success. Field of Dreams was more than just Kevin Costner's last great movie. It was a lesson. In the end, he lost his farm. If new crosswalks further north see limited use, it risks our chances of ever seeing new crosswalks at more practical locations.
A map of the master plan remains to be seen, but if it is as integrated as the latest proposal for Penn's Landing it could stall in a stream of blind ambition. Cohesive plans look great on paper but can rarely be executed without bottomless funding, not solely because they're so large, but because the integrated pieces can't work alone.
You don't have to think small to think smart. But you do have to think outward, consider financial realities, and with the agility for a master plan's individual components to evolve in the process. Link the park space where it's most used. Connect recreationalists to profit points like the Philadelphia Zoo and Memorial Hall. Consider variables that will prove the master plan is a viable one so that future funding presents itself when necessary.
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