Planning Commission Director Alan Greenberger leads PlanPhilly on an eye-opening walking tour of the transit concourses beneath Center City.
As if there's not enough work to do at ground level, City Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger also has subterranean Philadelphia on his mind.
Earlier this spring, Greenberger took PlanPhilly on an underground tour that trekked from the bustling retail and restaurant space beneath Comcast Center at Arch and 18th Streets through much darker, sparser, dingier corridors to the mixed retail at The Gallery and the rather fancy, light-filled atrium space at the Lit Brothers building, at 7th and Market Streets, where a piano player entertained the lunch crowd.
Some of the retail space hums, some barely whispers. Some of the connecting hallways, lined with tile or glass or shiny aluminum that sort of says “diner,” are filled with people. Others connectors are less traveled, and some are less-than-welcoming. A few spots are downright creepy.
Greenberger would like all the spaces to be lively and safe feeling and useful. And the city is working in partnership with SEPTA, the Center City District and in some cases private property owners to make this happen. But no one wants the underground to thrive at the expense of the street life, he said, so the process is essentially a balancing act.
“You can make a fair argument that says the more people we put underground, or up on the second level, the fewer of them are on the street,” Greenberger said. “And that's a dilemma that we have to settle.”
In some cases, the problems seem to hinge on the relative secrecy (except for the sound) by which the trains roll beneath the streets. More residents – and especially visitors – would use the subway and rail system if they knew where to get on board, he said.
“We have two of largest transit hubs in the United States and they are virtually invisible,” Greenberger said. “The one on Market East, you could stand on Market Street and not even know it's down there at all.”
As the tour begins, Greenberger notes that the proposed American Commerce Center – which would be Philadelphia's largest skyscraper – would extend the concourse a block further west, to 19th and Arch Streets. The building would likely have “thousands” of people working in it, Greenberger said. “The reason American Commerce was credible to us as a fairly dense development was because of this concourse,” he said. It works “because it's hooked up to the regional rail system, as well as the city transit system.” In other words, it’s Transit Oriented Development.
These hubs where regional and city transit come together are “very powerful” Greenberger said, and the city has three: 30th Street Station, Suburban Station, and Market East. Each hub is busy and supports retail that is fairly successful, at least on the concourse level.
It's the byways between the hubs that vary widely. Greenberger has himself used these underground connections to stay dry on a rainy day. But as convenient as that is, Philadelphia isn't St. Paul. Greenberger wouldn't advocate building the connected passages today. “This is not a climate where we need to put everybody inside, but, we have it, and we'd be foolish to ignore it,” he said. “And so we need to make it as good as we can, and we need to make its connections to the street as powerful as we can so that there's a better interchange and flow between the two. That's how we're going to win on both fronts.”
The makeover at Dilworth
Past the Suburban Station shops and buskers, and the Post Office branch and SEPTA offices, we emerged into a circle of light beneath Dilworth Plaza at City Hall.
“Now we're going to transition to the part where it's all about the transit interconnections – there's no more retail,” Greenberger said. “This is where it gets a little sketchy.”
Subway riders can exit from either the Market-Frankford or Broad Street lines and take the stairs up through the open well to Dilworth Plaza and City Hall. But on the return trip, they cannot enter the same way. “This isn't working well yet, and this is why I think the plan for redoing Dilworth Plaza is important to make this have life,” Greenberger said.
The $1.3 million plan on paper he's talking about has been put together by the Center City District, with $70,000 from adjacent property owners and the remainder from foundation grants. Greenberger and others are enthusiastic (see attached documents below) and the working plan has been critiqued by some members of Philadelphia's design community.
• Commentary: Get the Plaza right
• City Hall faces fixing its own neighborhood
• DAG position on Dilworth Plaza redo
Center City District Executive Director Paul Levy says the form of the topside public park planned for Dilworth follows the function of what lies underground. “City Hall is at the very center of the city, and every rail system in the city converges there, we want to highlight that,” said Levy. “Most of the public discussion has been on the (CCD plans for) the surface. But so much of what determines the surface is the huge rail structure beneath it.”
A key element would be a new space from which all the transit lines – Market-Frankford (blue) Broad Street (orange) and Subway Surface (green) – could be accessed, Levy said. There would also be a token booth there.
Plans for the plaza itself include a cafe, green space, and a programmable fountain that can be turned off to create space for farmers’ markets, concerts, and other events. The plans to make this happen were presented to the Planning Commission at an informational meeting and have been “extensively reviewed with Alan Greenberger, (deputy mayor) Rina Cutler, the commissioner of public property, the city representative, SEPTA and the Streets Department,” said CCD spokesman RJ White. “We've also received a favorable recommendation from the architectural review committee of the Historical Commission and formal approval from the Historical Commission of the schematic design.”
CCD plans to take the proposal to the Art Commission this fall. Other approvals – including a formal blessing from the Planning Commission, are also needed. So is money. About $1.3 million for the planning stage was raised through grants from foundations and donations from adjacent businesses. Construction will cost about $45 million, money which is expected to come from state and federal government, local foundations, private grants and, potentially, a CCD bond issue.
Greenberger leads the way past the Dilworth Plaza area underground through a tiled hallway. “This is City Hall Station. So it's our central station in Philadelphia, right under City Hall. And yet it's all very complicated, and very dark, and not very generous feeling.”