Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway

The Parkway is a disaster — let's fix it!

As the Benjamin Franklin Parkway approaches its centennial in 2017 and 2018, a group of scholars and urbanists are planning a multiyear celebration of the Parkway’s role in Philadelphia. The steering committee asked me to participate in their planning group, and though the invitation flattered me, it also gave me pause. Does the Parkway really deserve a multiyear celebration? No. Why? Because, as hard as it may be to admit, the Parkway was a mistake.

Go ahead, try to get to Swann Fountain! (photo by the author)

The idea of a boulevard connecting Philadelphia’s center to Fairmount Park originated as early as the 1850s. In 1891, a group of “prominent citizens” presented City Council with a petition endorsing the concept. James H. Windrim, the city’s director of public works, drafted the first plan and the concept was approved by the City Councils (there were two of them back then) in 1892. Thanks to the Republican machine government that thrived on graft from large civic construction projects, the plan moved forward.

City Beautiful

In the early 20th century, the progressive design community was enamored with the City Beautiful movement, inspired by the grand boulevards of Europe as well as Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and the 1902 McMillan Plan for Washington, D.C. The Fairmount Park Art Association commissioned a plan for Philadelphia’s boulevard by a group of well-known designers: Paul Cret, Clarence Zantzinger, and Horace Trumbauer. After much debate around the configuration and alignment of the roadway, the plan was completed in 1907 and was put on the official City Plan in 1909. The voters approved a $1 million loan to finance the boulevard.

In 1917, the Fairmount Park Commission hired French landscape architect Jacques Gréber to revamp the boulevard design. As a result, Logan Square was converted to a circle and the Library and Municipal Court buildings were designed to evoke the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The overall approach was to make Philadelphia’s boulevard an homage to the Champs-Élysées.

Construction started in 1917, and the boulevard opened to traffic in 1918. The construction required the demolition of 1,300 properties, displacing thousands of individuals and businesses. In 1937, City Council named the boulevard the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The Parkway was built as a grand avenue, lined with trees and great civic and cultural buildings, to get people from downtown to the park. While it sounds good in theory, it just doesn’t work in reality. As built today, the Parkway is a large, high-speed roadway that is bereft of activity and hard for pedestrians to cross. Not that pedestrians have many reasons to walk it in the first place; after you get past Logan Square, you can count the number of widely scattered destinations on one hand.

The biggest thing to happen to the Parkway in recent history was the Barnes Foundation’s arrival. While it was an amazing achievement to bring the Barnes to Center City, adding one more set-back building to a scattered collection of destinations did not significantly change the dynamic of the Parkway.

“A museum ghetto”

Numerous writers have highlighted the Parkway’s shortcomings. For example, in a 2012 article on Hidden City, Greg Meckstroth called it “a veritable museum ghetto that often becomes desolate at night. . . . [T]he Parkway appears to be condemned to sour monotony.”[1] Pulitzer-Prize winning architecture critic Inga Saffron began a piece about the Parkway: “Ever since the Parkway opened nearly a century ago, Philadelphians have been trying to figure out how to fix it.”[2]

Jane Jacobs, the most famous urbanist commentator of the 20th century, also detested the Parkway. Jacobs was a notorious hater of the City Beautiful planning, which embraced monumentality over walkable urbanism. One article quoted her bashing the Parkway: “The library has no business being out here and neither do the Art Museum or the Franklin Institute.”[3] As much fame as our city gets from the Rocky steps, imagine how many more visitors the Art Museum would get if it were downtown.

In his book Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Penn art history professor David Brownlee skewers the 1950s-60s Urban Renewal planning that resulted in the Vine Street Expressway, the ugly Park Towne Place apartments, and Love Park as having a detrimental effect on the Parkway.[4] While he’s partially right, these elements are not the root problem. What is the root problem? According to Inga Saffron, it’s “the lack of density and human activity.”[5]

The Parkway looks good on the Fourth of July and during the marathon. But otherwise it’s an underutilized, poorly planned, highway wasteland of an urban space. We should face up to the fact that as much as we love the view from museum steps, and the boulevard of flags on the evening news, the Parkway is a disaster and the city would be better if it were never built.

So what do we do about it?

Let’s fix it.

Center City District/Central Philadelphia Development Corporation has been working toward that goal for at least 20 years. Recent improvements spearheaded by CCD include two new cafes (Café Cret and Logan Square café), re-landscaping of three parks, and a number of other modest, but impactful interventions like lighting and pedestrian improvements.

The Department of Parks and Recreation and Penn Praxis put out a plan last year called “More Park, Less Way" that proposed a number of small-scale interventions. Inga Saffron criticized the plan, stating, “For all those good, small ideas, the new plan shies away from confronting the fundamental design issues that are the source of the Parkway's failure.”[6]

Center City District’s Executive Director, Paul Levy, is a self-proclaimed “raging incrementalist," who has spent his career showing the impact of steady, focused change.[7] However, in 1999, CCD produced a plan for the Parkway that was not incremental in the least; it was disruptive and transformative, but it was also shot down and never implemented. After seeing the 1999 plan dismissed by the powers that be, it makes sense that CCD and the City would turn to a strategy of smaller, more attainable projects.

However, that more ambitious plan was 15 years ago, and perhaps today’s Philadelphia is ready to try again with the kind of big, disruptive ideas that will be necessary to turn the Parkway into a successful urban space.

The 1999 plan, called “Completing the Benjamin Franklin Parkway,” had several big ideas, including completely altering the lane configuration of the boulevard to make it more pedestrian friendly and improving the crossing by the Art Museum — including sinking traffic under a grade-level crossing.[8] I like both of those ideas. However, there was another big idea that I think needs to come first and that is ready for a second try: turning Logan Circle back into a square.

Squaring the circle

Logan Circle is basically a traffic rotary. It creates a barrier that destroys the urban fabric in the northwest quadrant of Center City. Jane Jacobs described Logan Circle as "discouraging to reach on foot, and is mainly an elegant amenity for those speeding by, it gets a trickle of population on fine days.”[9] Things haven’t changed much for Logan Circle in 54 years. Given its critical location at the midpoint along the Parkway between the Art Museum and City Hall, and the final transition before Center City devolves into an expanse of ten-lane traffic, Logan Square stands a chance to become reconnected to the surrounding urban fabric.

It’s not a crazy idea. It used to be an urban square, just like Rittenhouse, Washington, and Franklin Squares. And before Jacques Gréber had his way, the previous plan was actually to keep Logan as a square. Transforming it back would not be a new idea so much as reclaiming an original plan for the Parkway that was better and less disruptive to the urban landscape.

A park rather than a traffic circle would have a number of benefits. It would draw more walkers into the northwest quadrant of the city. It would greatly improve property values of the buildings around it and unify the surrounding communities. It would potentially open up new parcels for residential and retail development. It could accommodate amenities like additional cafés and a playground. The openings over the Vine Street Expressway could be decked to create a more welcoming approach to the Free Library and the planned Kimpton Hotel. The new square could potentially include underground parking to accommodate commuters and visitors to the Franklin Institute and other destinations.

Who’s with me?

Let’s start now in making the Parkway a more successful urban space by building the coalition needed to convert Logan Circle back into a square. It’s going to take time and a lot of support and money, but it will be worth it. We will reclaim about 20 acres of prime Center City land, shrink the Parkway down to a more manageable length, and bring the activity of downtown closer to our cultural boulevard.

Instead of spending 2018 celebrating the history of the Parkway with scholarly talks, let’s set a goal of celebrating the opening of a new Logan Square — a reclaimed urban neighborhood and a victory for Center City.

 

Above right: Logan Square was a circle in 1865. The intersection in the foreground is 20th & Vine Streets. The large domed building (left) is the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. The pedimented building (right) on Race Street between 18th and 19th Streets is Wills Eye Hospital (now the site of the Four Seasons Hotel). Logan Square was converted into Logan Circle in the 1920s. (via Wikipedia)

Above left: Image by David Slovic from the 1999 Center City District plan “Completing the Benjamin Franklin Parkway"; used with permission.

 

 

[1] Greg Meckstroth, “If The Parkway Were A Pizza, It’d Be Awfully Plain,” Hidden City, November 29, 2012 (http://hiddencityphila.org/2012/11/if-the-parkway-were-a-pizza-itd-be-awfully-plain/)

[2] Inga Saffron, “Small steps toward Ben Franklin Parkway progress,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 2, 2013 (http://articles.philly.com/2013-02-02/news/36686556_1_parkway-manager-fix-it-plan-small-plans).

[3] Frederick Pillsbury, “I Like Philadelphia… with some big IFs and BUTs,” The Sunday Bulletin Magazine, June 24, 1962.

[4] David Brownlee, “Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art” (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989), 115-116.

[5] Saffron.

[6] Saffron.

[7] “raging incrementalist” quote from  Joann Greco, “Challenges for Viaduct Project: Ownership, community and cultural implications, a large and diverse space, and civic ramifications,” Plan Philly, March 22, 2013 (http://planphilly.com/articles/2013/03/22/challenges-for-viaduct-project-ownership-community-and-cultural-implications-a-large-and-diverse-space-and-civic-ramifications).

[8] Central Philadelphia Development Corporation, “Completing the Benjamin Franklin Parkway,” 1999.

[9] Jacobs, 93.

 

Our readers respond

Joseph Glantz

of Levittown, PA on October 29, 2014

So basically we should rebuild the Parkway, preferably from scratch, because Philadelphians are too damn lazy to walk to see the Philadelphia Museum of Art and too impatient to wait 60 seconds to cross the streets at the traffic lights? Or too cheap to hop on the city trolley? Hmm— wondering what all the people who complained that the Barnes should stay where it is even if it means taking 20 or 30 minutes to get there think of this new "culture at your footsteps" proposal.
"The Parkway is a disaster and the city would be better if it were never built"? Sure, let's have our prime buildings like they are in New York, where there's no perspective to enjoy them and you can't see the sky when you walk; where you need a fullback to clear the lanes for you just to walk the sidewalks.
A playground? That's what's missing? Just what America's most beautiful street needs– seesaws and a jungle gym. More nightlife? Broad Street barely has any night life, and it has all the stuff people want to see at night. Logan Circle should be a square? Why not a triangle? Triangles take up less space than squares, and we could squeeze even more buildings into it.
I wouldn’t mind seeing the Calders agree to a new Calder museum. The Parkway could use a few restaurants. Otherwise, let's leave well enough alone and enjoy the Parkway's centennial.

Anne R. Fabbri

of Wayne, PA on October 29, 2014

I want to register my strong disagreement. This entrance to Center City is a beautiful and distinctive attribute to our city, lined with elegant architecture that invites visitors and residents to enjoy its cultural assets. Just driving past or walking in the entrance of the Philadelphia Public Library's central building lifts one's spirits.
Logan Circle is perfect, just as it is and where it is located. Check out the view from the main entrance of the Art Museum. Behind you is an Alexander Calder''s mobile, adding vitality to the Grand Stairway; straight ahead at Logan Circle is the Fountain of River Symbols, by his father; and his grandfather was the sculptor of William Penn atop City Hall.
This is one of Philadelphia's great assets: a tradition of supporting the arts, maintaining them for future generations and making them available to everyone.
 

Geoff Thompson

of Philadelphia, PA on October 29, 2014

Original plans for the Parkway called for a much denser core of buildings similar to the Champs Élysées in Paris. What happened? The Great Depression. This Parkway has never become a strong destination, other than when it is closed off for festivals, because there isn't any amenity here. It's a lot of passive greenspace and museums that close early. The amount of passive space creates a border between Fairmount and the rest of the city. It has fallen short from an urban planning perspective and as a street that balances the needs of multiple users, not just cars. The original plans for density and new buildings other than cultural institutions would help reconnect this area with the rest of the city.
What is also needed is better zoning and, yes, even some loss of greenspace for replacement as new buildings. A functional neighborhood does not posses only one kind of building for one kind of use. Careful rezoning of certain portions of the Parkway would bring much needed vitality and connections back into the space.

David Curtis

of Philadelphia, on October 29, 2014

Greg is spot on with his criticisms. As presently constructed, the Parkway is useless for all modes of transportation and fails miserably at any attempt to become a place in its own right. The Parkway itself is dominated by empty space, whether overbuilt road or passive "green space" (as opposed to useful/active park space), and is made worse by the fact that virtually all adjacent development does not front the street. We have created a vacuum in place of what should be a world-class civic space. A century of poor choices have left us with an embarrassing space that is hostile to all. It deserves to be the crown jewel for Philadelphia that we all want it to be. Time to for us to make it so.

Diana Lind

of Philadelphia, PA on October 29, 2014

The two comments in favor of the Parkway are made by people who do not live in the city but in Levittown and Wayne. The Parkway does wonders for tourists and motorists. For residents who live and work here, not so much.

Arlene Love

of Art Museum area, Philadelphia, on October 30, 2014

I know a Bostonian, familiar with Philadelphia, who was here for a meeting. He had enough time to visit the Barnes before flying home. He walked from City Hall down the Parkway to the Barnes, but couldn't find the entrance. There was not a soul in sight to ask directions, not a cafe or shop. Nada. He hailed a cab to the airport. The Parkway is indeed a disaster.

Michele Koskinen

of Philadelphia, PA on October 30, 2014

A comment was made about the Barnes entrance. It is strange that the building is built on the Parkway but the door is around on the side. The recent pop-up park was a good idea but, again, you are in the middle of about eight lanes of traffic. Less cars, more park is my vote. Putting some of the lanes underground may not be a bad idea, or get rid of some altogether. The Art Museum Circle is a nightmare.

James Jackson

of Philadelphia, Pa on November 01, 2014

In order to truly understand what is wrong with the Parkway you need to get out of your cars and walk or bike through the city. The main problem with Fairmount is right in its name: it is a *mountain*— not only a mountain, it is separated from Center City by a huge valley. The artist's depictions have kindly flattened out large spaces to either side with shops and high-rise condos (as if the city needs more of those) but neglects to realize there's no dirt on which to build them. If you've ever gone from Rittenhouse to Fairmount by bike or on foot you quickly understand why, over many decades, that route has been under-trafficked— not because people are lazy, but because overall they're smart and avoid walking down into a valley, only to have to climb straight out the other side.

Larry Shaeffer

of Philadelphia, PA on November 01, 2014

About five or six ago, Gladdings, Jackson, a firm that has done award-winning designs all over the world, was brought in to come up with something new for the Parkway. Their design radically changed the flow of traffic and dramatically improved access and safety for peds and bikes. Gladdings introduced modern roundabouts on many of the intersection legs (improved safety and capacity for all modes). RIna Cutler, the deputy mayor for transportation, deep-sixed the plan, and the firm is now basically blacklisted from working in the city.

Alaina Mabaso

of Ambler, PA on November 03, 2014

As a frequent city walker and public transit user, I agree that the Parkway is no fun for pedestrians. When I need to cross it, or want to take a seat by the fountain for a minute between meetings, I always feel like I'm watching for highway traffic from four different directions. If it makes me irritable when I'm accustomed to doing it, how must it feel to a family of tourists trying to get their kids across the road?

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.