PHOTOS: What Snow Tells Us About Creating Better Public Spaces on E. Passyunk Avenue
After record amounts of snow this year in Philadelphia, you could be excused for not wanting to see any more of it. But today's snow actually brought us some pretty cool ideas for public spaces and traffic safety improvements along E. Passyunk Avenue in South Philly.
If you haven't heard of a "sneckdown" yet, it's a clever combination of "snow" and "neckdown" - another name for a curb expansion - that uses snow formations on the street to reveal the space cars don't use. Advocates can then use these sneckdown photos to make the case to local transportation officials that traffic calming interventions like curb bumpouts and traffic islands can be installed without any loss to car drivers.
One of the areas of Philadelphia with the best opportunities for pedestrian plazas is E. Passyunk Avenue, which crosses the street grid at a diagonal, creating lots of triangular intersections. I thought the snow would provide some good examples to help you visualize what I'm talking about, so I headed over there this afternoon to take some sneckdown photos. And to my delight, the snow revealed some awesome traffic calming ideas I hadn't considered.
At the intersection of 6th and Passyunk and Christian, near the excellent Shot Tower Coffee, there is a triangular plot of land that I always thought would make a great public plaza, but there's a For Sale sign there now, indicating it will probably become housing.
The city's choice to allocate the public right of way around this triangle to curb parking for cars means the parcel is smaller than it could be, but even so, the snow formation shows it could be larger even without taking away parking. Still try to imagine how much more sidewalk there could be if not for the curb parking around the island though:
Even when this parcel gets some housing, there is still plenty of space on the road just to the north for a smaller parklet with a bench and a couple planters:
If maximizing curb parking spaces is the political goal, then there might be some objections to how wide this plaza is. That parking space on the north side of the island would probably go away, for example. But if the goal is to make this the nicest possible public space, then maybe we get rid of the 7 parking spaces around this thing and extend the sidewalk.
As you'll see, another issue that pops up repeatedly with these plazas is the trade-off between allowing U-turns from E. Passyunk vs. connecting pedestrian plazas to the corner sidewalk. You can an example of this issue in the photo below:
If parking isn't the paramount concern, then the new parklet can just connect to the sidewalk of the triangle parcel, but this eliminates the turnaround lane here that lets drivers make a U-turn onto 6th Street. It also means people trying to make a right on Queen St. have to drive another half block, loop around Catharine and back down 6th - about a 30-second detour that will nonetheless draw 2 or 3 NIMBYs to your public meeting.
Here's a plaza for Rita's, where again we see the trade-off between easy U-turns for cars and nice plazas with cafe tables and planters for families to sit and eat Italian ice in the summer:
The snow formations reveal that this whole intersection could feature bump-outs without taking away any travel lanes or parking spaces from motorists. Here's the corner directly next to Rita's on Carpenter and Passyunk, down the street from The Dive Bar and Royal Tavern:
The Free Library branch on the other corner of Carpenter could have a similar bumpout. There'd be lots of room for street furniture and planters (stormwater absorption!), making this intersection a much greener and happier place.
Directly across from this intersection to the south at Kimball and E. Passyunk, the snow reveals another good space for a ped plaza. This retail space is empty and appears to have been a Mexican restaurant:
I'm not sure if this intersection has many crashes, but check out where the stop lines are. This plaza would move the lines up closer together where drivers can fully see each other, as well as other drivers across Carpenter. Here's the view looking north:
Continuing south on E. Passyunk across Washington, it's clear that a road diet is in order. Geoff weighed in on the restriping options already, and we'll have more coverage of that when the official plan drops. Here's what the snow tells us about how much space cars use now:
At the southern tip of the triangular block created by Washington, 8th Street, and E. Passyunk, there is a triangular lot for sale, with the CRABS sign on it. The cars are a little confusing, so I highlighted in blue where the sidewalk currently ends, and in green where it could end. Upgrading the public infrastructure to include a nice plaza with some planters and street seating could potentially lure a higher value building to this parcel:
Here's the view looking north:
The opposite corner, around 8th, E. Passyunk, and Ellsworth, has an auto parts business. This is a lower priority sidewalk extension at the moment, because if you gave the auto parts store some more sidewalk space, you know they'd just let cars park on it. Eventually rising land values in this neighborhood will price these kinds of low value uses out of the neighborhood, at which point we can think about a pedestrian plaza here.
For reference, this parcel is zoned CMX 2.5 so you can build a pretty big mixed-use building by-right, although of course nothing is *really* by-right in South Philly:
Continuing south, the next interesting intersection is 9th and E. Passyunk. A pede plaza for Gino's deserves low priority as long as that "Speak English" sign is still in the window, but it would clearly be good for business. Gino's customers already line up in this road space while waiting to order. Why not extend the sidewalk further so they don't have to stand in the street?
This is right next to a park lots of families walk to on weekend days, and that lots of drunk people walk to on weekend nights. A road diet that gets motorists to pay closer attention to the sometimes unpredictable movements of kids and drunk people would be a big win for safety. Also, imagine how much more outdoor cheesesteak plaza space there'd be if the sidewalk were extended out to where the curb parking is now. That doesn't seem like a winnable political fight in this particular corner of South Philly, but it's worth saying this would make this a better space on the merits.
Same deal with the Pat's parcel:
Here's the south side. Take away the curb parking, and you can have a pretty nice expansion of the outdoor space. If not, it's not really worth doing anything here:
On the opposite corner, there's a community garden and mural across from Capitolo playground that might bring some botanical goodness out onto the public right-of-way with a sidewalk expansion:
The next intersection of note is one of the most dangerous in South Philly, at Reed, 10th, and E. Passyunk. The unused trolley tracks are a death trap for cyclists, and the intersection is just overly wide and confusing. Here's a screenshot from Google Streetview to give you an idea of what it looks like on a regular day:
Basically a random suburban surface parking hellscape in the middle of an otherwise walkable neighborhood. But here are some good ideas from the snow for taking this space down to human scale.
First, a big ole' triangle traffic island right in front of Rita's:
Once again we have the trade-off between U-turns vs. connecting the Rita's corner to the triangle island and eliminating that lane. I'd personally prefer the latter. Let families have a nice big pedestrian plaza to sit and enjoy their Italian ice, and let's calm down this intersection.
Next to Rita's at the Triangle Tavern - aptly named, once we lay down this sweet triangle - there's another snow patch that points the way to calming this overly wide intersection:
The final piece for taming this intersection is a pedestrian plaza for Passyunk Market. Again, the a trade-off between letting cars make a U-turn from E. Passyunk onto 10th Street vs. attaching the triangle to the sidewalk:
Taken together, all of these traffic islands would cut traffic speeds and make it a lot easier for humans to traverse this intersection on foot.
A bit further south, we start getting into the really happening part of the Passyunk Square neighborhood business district. Here the snow says B2 could have a nice parklet with planters in front (maybe from Urban Jungle?) to draw in spontaneous patrons:
The Singing Fountain plaza could also be substantially bigger, especially if it didn't need to have curb parking surrounding it. Here's the north side:
And here's the south side:
Imagine this intersection filled with planters, cafe tables and chairs, maybe some designer bike racks. This is a way to bring a lot more greenery to a neighborhood that many complain lacks tree cover. Here's the view looking north:
And here's a closer look at the Metro Men's clothing store corner of Tasker. How many more spontaneous customers is this place going to get with a cool parklet out front:
Heading south, here's the Cantina Los Caballitos corner:
The intersection of Morris, 12th, and E. Passyunk could be a real draw for this neighborhood, maybe even more so than the Singing Fountain. This is where we can fit two really good-sized pedestrian plazas if, once again, people are willing to trade off U-turns for nice public spaces.
Here's one next to El Zarape. Like the CRABS parcel, maybe upgrading the public infrastructure around it with nice landscaping, some public seating, maybe a statue, would help developers see some more potential for this space than a short ugly building.
Here's another one, right across the intersection next to Birra and Doggie Styles and A Man's Image:
Again, whether or not people are willing to let go of the U-Turn will determine whether the pedestrian plaza can connect to the A Man's Image sidewalk - already pretty elongated - and make a special new park of similar quality to the Singing Fountain.
My phone died right after this, so if there are other cool intersections beyond this where you think a pedestrian plaza would work well (I turned back around the King of Jeans intersection, which already features a nice triangle park) you should go take a picture while the snow's still out tomorrow and send it to us.
The point isn't that none of these ideas would be controversial (people like to drive fast, and these interventions make them drive more slowly), but the political bar is much lower because most of them don't take away any space anyone is actually using.
The vast majority of these plaza ideas don't take away any parking spaces, but if you want some of them to be their best possible selves, there's typically only one or two property owners to persuade. In most of the cases where I recommend taking out parking, the Streets Department could take away the spaces unilaterally, if it's under 250 feet worth of parking spaces.
Politically, it would be easiest to get started on this stuff by persuading individual business owners to let you paint the traffic triangles or bumpouts, and then decorate them with planters and some cheap cafe tables and chairs. These are cheap high-impact projects that can be done quickly, and once we get started they are going to get popular very fast. Once businesses see how nice they look (think The Porch at 30th Street Station, or Green Line Cafe's parklet in West Philly), and how much more spontaneous foot traffic they bring in, the political barriers to creating more will melt away.