The Power of Pedestrian Plazas: Economic & Social Impacts of the Grays Ferry Triangles
The Grays Ferry Triangles Pedestrian Plaza occupies an enviable list in the life of Philadelphia's public space. It is the first pedestrian plaza in Center City to permanently close an active street off from car use and repurpose it for pedestrians. It is also the first pedestrian plaza to utilize recently passed city-wide legislation for its legalization. One could be tempted to look at the space today and say that a plaza on an underused street just makes sense. However, that viewpoint was not widely held just a year ago.
As we've noted in prior posts, the journey to make this plaza reality has been nearly a decade in the making. Sustained citizen advocacy meant community volunteers worked directly with neighboring businesses and residents to craft a temporary public space. This included building trust through regular maintenance, incorporating feedback regarding parking and loading concerns into the plaza's design, and activating the space with a robust series of events catering to a wide demographic of users. Vision from city agencies like MOTU (Mayor's Office of Transporation and Utilities), and support from Councilman Johnson provided the extra push enabling the creation and continuance of the Triangles Plaza.
Opened in May of 2014, this year has provided nearly seven months of impressions from the surrounding community. We sat down with business owners and community members flanking 23rd and South to gauge their impressions of the Grays Ferry Triangles pedestrian plaza.
Good For Business
Perhaps the largest barrier for volunteers to surmount when pushing for a pedestrian plaza at this space was the difficulty to imagine the space as something different and better than what was there before. Some business owners immediately saw the value of a plaza, others weren't as convinced. Brad Dakake, chair of SOSNA's Triangles Committee in charge of planning for and programming this space explains more:
"It is not always easy to reimagine a space - a street, a building, an elevated train track - as something new."
Seven months of programs, maintenance and diligence from the Triangles committee however has changed the minds of many. James Fernandes, owner of Grace Tavern, a bar/restaurant flanking the plaza that was voted best bar in Philly a few years back is one of them.
"We've seen it as nothing but positive. There are a lot more people around. It's a natural draw to our space."
Fernandes even added sidewalk seating for Grace Tavern, in part due to the social space of cafe tables that the Triangles provided.
"People want to enjoy food and drink in places where others are already gathered. We wanted to tap into that. We even had a funny exchange one of the first nights our sidewalk tables were open for service. The server working that night came up to me smiling saying a man sitting in the Triangles got angry with him. The man thought my Tavern could serve food and drink beyond our sidewalk area. He said (to the server) 'I've been sitting here for 30 minutes and no one has taken my order!'"
Fernandes went on to say that business this year was better than previous years. His comments echo what business owners on the other end of South Street West near the PHS Pop-Up Garden told us when we wrote about that space.
"We usually quiet down in the summer. Our sidewalk seating and the plaza brought more people in the door, even on muggy nights."
Zac Parker, the owner of The Igloo, a frozen dessert restaurant two doors down also noted brisker summer business he attributed to the plaza:
"We saw a 10% jump in sales over last year."
Safer For All
Safety and the public space also emerged in conversations with business owners. Parker attributed some of his sales increases to the safer space the plaza provided for children.
"The plaza is a natural extension of our brand with children outside our door. The space provided a greater sense of safety since moving car traffic was pushed away from our curb out on to 23rd Street."
Pam Groves, owner of Baby Wordplay reinforced the greater sense of safety for children:
"Having the triangle has allowed our entrance to be much safer for families entering Baby Wordplay; there is a nice flow in and out of our space. Also, in the summer I could use the sidwalk for some activities (chalk, water play) without fear of the cars parking in front and coming down the wrong way!"
Safety for others besides children was also mentioned by Zac Parker of Igloo and James Fernandes of Grace Tavern. Fernandes added:
"The spaces is a big, bright public space. It's better patrolled. The lighting and cameras have made my staff feel safer closing up the bar late at night."
Parker added there has been no problem policing the space and that the presence of people sitting in the square has meant more eyes on the street to increase safety and build a sense of community.
Event Space & Community Builder
The plaza also became a nexus for social events for the surrounding neighborhood. Brad Dakake, chair of the Triangles Committee expounds on this:
"Our events - 16 live music concerts with food trucks, 3 outdoor fundraising dinners, a children's Halloween pumpkin painting, a give away of 200 recycling bins, not to mention a wedding, etc. - brought literally thousands of people out to enjoy a community space that just a few months ago had been an unnecessary road. These people, plus folks who came to enjoy a book, meet with friends, or just relax in the shade by a bubbling fountain, met their neighbors, patronized local businesses, and got involved in their community."
Pam Groves from Baby Worldplay utilized the space accordingly as well:
"I had a Triangle family day which brought 250 people into triangle to participate in an outdoor sing-a-long and sales and live music."
A wedding even occured in The Triangles Plaza. The former director of SOSNA, Andrew Dalzell was married in the space prior to his departure to Edinburgh for grad school. Anastasio Botsaris, owner of Phoebe's BBQ around the corner from the plaza, catered the wedding. He added that the space benefited him personally, regularly stopping in to enjoy sitting by the fountain.
Despite all the successes of the space, there were some unintended consequences to the plaza. Most of them revolved around loading and trash removal. Zac Parker from the Igloo mentioned some issues with trash removal and loading:
"If I could give advice to other businesses thinking about a pedestrian plaza and how it supports them, I'd definitely say do it. But you'll want to figure out where you'll be putting trash for pick-up. Work out a system with your neighboring businesses and remember your loading may be slightly affected as well."
Jason Nussbaum, the owner of South Square Market, a grocery store across from the plaza, mentioned his concerns regarding inventory stocking:
"Loading was a concern for me. Some minor adjustments were needed but everyone adapted pretty quickly."
Clear consensus from the community and local business emerged when talking about the plaza at large. Only one business flanking the Triangles Plaza failed to sign on a letter of outright support for continuing the plaza for 3 more years. Due to the changes we advocated for here at This Old City to recently passed legislation that sets guidelines for formalizing pedestrian plazas, it didn't matter. 75% of property owners directly touching a pedestrian plaza (or 2/3s for plazas with only three property owners) need to support these plazas. The city had previously proposed 100% support. 75% put pedestrian plaza approval on the same threshold as resident parking permits (75% of property owners). For the Triangles this change made a big difference. The Triangles Plaza will continue for at least 3 more years until the plaza can be made permanent. Nevertheless, the vast majority of businesses on or near the plaza have sung its praises. Anastasio Botsaris of Phoebe's BBQ around the corner from the plaza spoke to the community impact of the space:
"This space speaks to what this community represents... community, family and a sense of togetherness. People in the area have come together to support the plaza as well as the local businesses next to it."
Bringing the community impact theme to a more macro level, Jason Nussbaum of South Square Market provided perhaps the most pertinent quote about the potential of these pedestrian plazas elsewhere here in Philadelphia:
"If everyone makes a small sacrifice for a project like this, the benefits far outweigh any pains."