PHOTOS: Penn Center is a Horribly Bleak Public Space. Does It Have to Be?

16Feb

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Daily News Columnist Stu Bykofsky, usually no friend of Philadelphia urbanists, penned a column on LOVE park a couple weeks ago which actually raised an important issue:

Tastes change. Bacon is the person most responsible for modern-day Center City. Business and architecture were ignited by the channel he created with Penn Center, hailed then as an urban breakthrough. A few decades pass and the architectural snipes call Penn Center cold and barren.

It could be better. LOVE Park was improved by Mayor John Street, who spent $800,000 to add grass, flowers, planters and wood benches. (Some upgrades were designed to deter skateboarders.)

The lifeless canyons between the modern but uninspiring buildings in Penn Center are easy and cheap to fix. Benches, more planters, trees and grassy patches, for a start. Benches should be brightly painted and C-shaped to encourage conversation.

This Old City will continue making the case for expedited conversion of under-used, over-wide, or redundant stretches of city road space now marked for cars into new attractive and useful public spaces for pedestrians and active transportation. 

But as with La Colombe's sad traffic triangle at South Penn Square it's also important to take stock of the places that have already been given over to pedestrians, and see if they aren't as nice as they could be.

Stu is absolutely right about Penn Center. This space is pretty lifeless and uninviting, and not just in the winter. 

It starts at 15th Street across from City Hall, with one of the only decent-looking subway entrances downtown getting wrapped in an ugly MetroPCS ad. Come on y'all. Tastefully-placed (hand-painted!) billboards can work, but this trash is something only a city with no self-respect would let people put on it:

And here is the view into the abyss:

The whole place is pretty unrelenting in its bleakness, as though designed for one solitary office worker to stand outside smoking cigarettes:

The only actual decorations are these cigarette repositories, some trash cans, and three cheapo beat-up bike racks:

Here's the view of City Hall. Cold hard cash!

The sadness continues looking north toward LOVE Park:

This is precisely what people have in mind when they say they don't want a place to feel like a skyscraper canyon:

Continuing west, there is another smaller (though still massive) plaza across 16th Street that someone doesn't seem to want pedestrians to enjoy. Is this what we want people to see when they get out of the subway over there?:

In fairness, they put some little tree planters out here that aren't terrible. But the way they're arranged in the middle of the walkway has the effect of making this seem like you shouldn't walk through here. It is saying: this is the front of an office building, not a pedestrian gateway between 16th and 17th Street:

But back here we have an amazing opportunity with this Original Turkey Plus for an outdoor pop-up beer garden/restaurant. Imagine this storefront with some low-slung strings of lights, a bunch of cafe tables and umbrellas, and an outdoor bar bustling with young office workers at happy hour:

Somebody needs to powerwash this thing and replace the black tiles with some colorful ones, but there's a lot of potential here. Maybe a roof deck?

Here's the view looking south to JFK Blvd:

Here's the view looking west to 17th Street, with another parcel that could be activated here if the landscape design choices drew more foot traffic this way. Pot Belly sandwich shop is on the corner:

And here's the bleak view back toward City Hall:

A fix could be had for cheap. The Porch at 30th Street Station has been regarded as a big success story for this type of intervention, and all they needed to pull that off were some planters, cafe tables, and umbrellas:


This project involved taking back space from cars, but we wouldn't have to do that with Penn Center. We just have to remake the pedestrian space we already have. Planters, cafe tables and umbrellas, and low-slung lighting all would bring Penn Center down to human scale, entice pedestrian traffic between 15th and 17th Street through this walkway, and create even more urban park space connecting the revamped Dilworth Plaza to the new Love Park.

Last Updated: Sunday, 16 February 2014 @ 08.00
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jongeeting's picture Jon Geeting About the Author:

Jon Geeting is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist and policy researcher. His writing also appears at Next City, Primary Colors, and Keystone Politics, where he covers politics and elections, land use and transportation, and urban economic policy. He also writes a monthly Political Machine column at Philly City Paper.