UPDATE: CHOP Schuylkill Ave Project Gets 1 Million For Multi-Modal Connections
Beginning late last year The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) began a series of public meetings with nearby stakeholders regarding their plans to develop 700 Schuylkill Avenue just south of the South Street Bridge. Preliminary plans were shown including promises for open public spaces and connections to the Schuylkill River Trail. These promises were made at the very earliest of CHOP's announcements and discussions with the neighborhood. CHOP's development team reminded the audience, as they did in numerous public meetings to follow in the next six months, that they were not required to provide access to the trail. This made their offer to do so appear generous, magnanimous even. Then came the designs.
In what was a long, protracted back and forth of community meetings, meetings with the local RCOs, zoning hearings and CDRs CHOP agreed to a plan for the site that allowed them sufficient flexibility to bow out of certain design elements should the economic or public funding climate change. One of those elements was a bridge originating from CHOP's newly built site, to connect the Schuylkill River Trail with an additional connection just a few hundred feet to the south of an already built staircase and ramp leading to the trail on the South Street Bridge (which should be open very soon). CHOP also promised to pay for a children's playground down on the Schuylkill River Trail itself. Seeing an opportunity to improve the connection further and make for a much more interesting public space, we at This Old City proposed our own plans building off of CHOP's proposal to connect their site to the trail. This included better public space amenity through the creation of a small clam shell-type amphitheater and a bridge with a swooping landscaped element rather than the austere utilitarian variety in CHOP's plans. Responses from CHOP's development team were non-committal and muted in public meetings after our post.
Overall many in the community took issue with the auto-orientation CHOP insisted for the site including plans for hundreds of open air and covered parking spaces, multiple entrances directly off the South Street Bridge, which though used by a good many cyclists crossing to West Philly and back, is already a poorly engineered bridge with no protected bike infrastructure, just paint on the roadway. CHOP edited their plans, including some elements of temporary and permanent retail spaces the community insisted on, but overall the plans for multi modal alternatives to driving have not changed dramatically. In terms of this multi-modal transit connections, CHOP has promised to extend the LUCY (Loop through Univerity City) bus to connect the site with the rest of it's facilities. A new connection to the river trail, presumably for pedestrians and cyclists, means greater modes of connectivity to the site as well. However, CHOP sought an exit clause in providing this bridge connection in case the investment climate for the entity or the site dramatically changed or public monies could not be secured.
Public monies have been secured via Act 89 passed as part of the state transporation bill earlier this year. The Bicycle Coalition announced via their blog that the CHOP site has been awarded 1 million dollars in public funds for use of multi-modal transit at 700 Schuylkill Avenue. (Item #11) This is good news in the fact that CHOP will be required to use these funds for the benefit of the public. For a comparison of this figure of 1 million dollars, let's look at some other projects in the public space and their costs. The wildy successful Spruce Street Harbor Park came to being in part by a significant $310,000 grant from ArtPlace. Race Street Pier further to the north recieved a $1.1 million grant. The East Passyunk Gateway project clocked in around $500,000.
Of course the two big differences between all three of these projects and CHOP's future public space at 700 Schuylkill are the size of the entity receiving the grants and the required use of those funds. In Philadelphia we have a variety of stakeholders of varying size with an interest in improving the public space. These include Registered Community Organizations like SOSNA or Passyunk Square Civic Association. These also include development corporations like the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, or the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation that spearheaded both the aforementioned Race Street Pier and Spruce Street Harbor Park interventions. Smaller organizations like these have proven valuable to the city as their core mission is that of community development.
That contrasts with CHOP's mission. As a "non-profit" organization and a prestigious medical institution, CHOP revenue for 2013 was $2.2 billion dollars. CHOP is the city's 6th largest employer. CHOP is a multi-billion dollar non-profit that as an entity pays no tax to the Commonwealth. $1 million represents significant impact in the public space but for an entity like CHOP, $1 million represents half of less than .1 percent of CHOP's revenue for 2013. Given CHOP's initial candor in their meetings on 700 Sckuylkill and their insistence that the public space elements of their plans, including the connections to Schuylkill River Trail, are dependent on market concerns, the million dollars awarded to this project seems to all but guarantee these spaces will take shape as planned.
In the meantime, limits on grantseekers with such large revenue streams to finance projects already seem warranted. Furthermore, the multi-modal aspects of this grant seem suspect given the community opposition and significant press regarding the large amount of parking on the future site. We'll continue to watch 700 Schuylkill Ave as it takes shape and a million of our dollars as taxpayers go into this site.