How to Create a More Walkable Mixed-Use Neighborhood Around 30th Street Station

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Stephen Smith makes some great points about the upcoming planning process for 30th Street Station over at Next City. If we want this area of University City to develop as a walkable mixed-use district that becomes more integrated over time with the Center City business district to the east, then the most important thing is to zone for that:

The first hurdle that the planners will have to overcome is the area’s zoning. Most of the parcels immediately adjacent to the station are zoned for industrial use only, essentially limiting their use to Drexel or Penn, since the area is too expensive for real industrial uses and the zoning also allows institutional uses. While the universities are no doubt the area’s anchors and will remain the most important employers, a truly urban neighborhood is hard to fashion out of an “eds and meds” monoculture.

Farther from the station, extending down Market Street to 34th Street and the streets farther south, the blocks are zoned for institutional use, again excluding office and residential uses not affiliated with a university or hospital.

Only in select locations — for example, on the block south of the old post office, where Brandywine is building the apartment building — are general residential and office uses allowed.

Currently the "eds and meds monoculture" is all too real, and it's really not until you get as far west as 40th Street that there's much of interest, save for a few pockets of restaurants and retail geared mostly to college students and their families. This is no accident. Looking at the zoning map, this is exactly what we would expect to see:

There's an important conversation to be had in the medium term about whether it makes sense for allowable density to drop off so quickly and severely just north of Market and just South of Walnut (or whether it makes sense for allowable density to drop off at all anywhere along the El, if transit-oriented development is a priority).

But in the short term, we don't really have to worry about that yet because there's so much that can be done converting these close-in I-2 (purple) tracts from the basically unusable industrial designation into CMX-4 or CMX-5 zones that would be more supportive of walkable mixed-use development around the universities.

As Stephen points out, the industrial zoning conspires with the high value of the land to essentially hold tracts of land that the universities don't yet own off the market until the universities decide they want to develop them. That's a recipe for more eds and meds monoculture.

The other change we'd like to see come out of the 30th Street Station planning process is a substantial reduction in levels of service for cars in this area.

University City is a pedestrian crash hotspot generally, though not specifically around 30th Street Station. The more dangerous area is just to the west:

Still, this is a direct function of how many cars the public streets in this area can accommodate, and the speeds that the roads, as currently designed, allow them to travel at. Market Street, Chestnut Street, and Walnut Street in University City are extremely wide, and accommodate inappropriately fast car travel speeds that are incompatible with a safe pedestrian environment or the development of active mixed-use retail corridors. Any plan to make this area more pedestrian-friendly needs to deal with that problem by narrowing travel lanes and implementing other traffic-calming measures.

At 30th Street Station itself, there are two things we could do to make the immediate area less auto-dominated.

First, we should get rid of the car lane between The Porch and the Station. The Porch is awesome, but it's really just a downpayment on a more pedestrian-friendly Station. It's time to expand it. Most of the time, it's just a parking lane for Amtrak executives. We've heard a range of arguments, some persuasive and some not so much, about why retaining car access to this area is important, so the best option might be another downpayment strategy: why not redesign this area as a woonerf, where pedestrians and cyclists have priority right-of-way, but security vehicles can still have access. The key is really clearing the non-essential auto uses out of that space. 

Another priority is reopening the tunnel to the Market-Frankford El. TOC contributor Michael Noda did a great post on this back in January laying out some of the benefits and complications with this idea, but it seems like a no-brainer. In addition to reducing the levels of service for cars around 30th Street, in order to increase levels of service for pedestrians and bikes, we also need to reduce the demand for auto rights-of-way by adding more transit options.

Restoring the connection to the Market-Frankford El will increase transit's share of the trips from 30th Street into Center City, and this will also provide a solid rationale for repurposing street space around the station for pedestrians and bikes. If the El reduces demand for cabs and parking, then there's no harm in taking back some of the right-of-way now occupied by cabs and parking.

Last Updated: Tuesday, 03 June 2014 @ 18.49
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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.