Rittenhouse Square Reconsidered: Part Five, Opportunity to Raise Revenue for Park Renewal


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In the last four vignettes, we’ve explored ways Rittenhouse Square can improve its borders and interiors. These improvements would need to come through major construction intervention from the Streets Department, Parks & Recreation and the Friends of Rittenhouse Square. Given the austerity mode we are in regarding public expenditure, how do we bridge the gap in public financing in creative new ways?

In 2010 drama erupted when new, more flexible fundraising options like those used in New York City were proposed for Rittenhouse Square.

The consultant hired then by Friends of Rittenhouse Square to develop potential options was Dan Biederman, a pioneer in the art of private financing for public spaces. His expertise was sought after successes he has spearheaded in places like Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library’s flagship facility in Manhattan.

Options included corporate sponsorship of flower/planting beds with small and tasteful signs noting sponsorship that did little to detract from the square’s beauty. Other options were a holiday light show, a kiosk for concessions, small concerts and even free wifi that could generate traffic to the splash page of a corporate donor (Comcast anyone?).

Many in the neighborhood jumped to irrational conclusions accusing Biederman of proposing billboards and festivals every weekend. They in turn proposed ideas as amateur as having volunteers sitting in booths collecting money for the square. Rittenhouse Square is not the Salvation Army at Christmastime. The Square needs steady, replicable income in order to make much needed capital improvements that will tally in the millions for a worthwhile and meaningful renovation. Mass corporatization of Bryant Park hasn’t happened but never mind the details, the opponents had made up their mind and ultimately few of Biederman’s ideas were thoughtfully considered by many in the audience.

Many attendees also saw no conflict of interest for their apartment buildings facing the square to be levied a charge to maintain the square. Rittenhouse Square is not the front yard of Savoy House or the Dorchester apartments. It is also not Gramercy Park in New York, with its gate and key forbidding access to most of the public. Apartment fees like this only magnify the sense of entitlement these residents have over a public space. Rittenhouse’s vibrancy comes from its openness and usage by everyone, not just those privileged enough to live right on the square.

Usage Patterns in Rittenhouse

Options for Rittenhouse:

 The lighter blue shaded area on the western edge (left. labeled underused oppty) of the square offers a unique propably the most controversial option for new revenue. Though this was a highly contentious issue during the aforementioned Biederman proposals, this area is currently underused partially due to the shade the tall buildings on the south and west sides of the park create. The popular Shake Shack completed around the cornter at 20th and Sansom originally began as a shack in Madison Square Park, a privately maintained public park near the famous Flatiron Building in New York. 

Philly now hosts its own Shake Shack. This was the original in Madison Square Park, Manhattan.

This original location is as popular as ever and offers a model for how a small, tastefully designed restaurant can bring much needed revenue into an organization funding the square. A properly structured contract with a vendor would mean proper waste disposal and maintenance would be no problem (a frequently cited gripe from those against Beiderman’s proposal). To address the backlog of maintenance issues facing the square, residual income from a contracted vendor would mean the Friends of Rittenhouse Square could focus on capital improvements.

Morris Column, Revenue Opportunity

Other options exist like Morris Columns, which are tastefully designed advertisement columns common in Europe, a place very sensitive to good urban design.  These could be placed at the corners of the square, as these are high-traffic gateways to the park, and offer a new revenue source for maintenance. Morris columns are also commonly seen in France and the UK and fit with the late 1800s aesthetic as advertising columns.  Below is an example of a Morris column. Outdoor advertising companies typically construct and maintain these columns and provide revenue to the city or, in this case, the Friends of Rittenhouse Square.

The central theme in these vignettes about Rittenhouse is not to discount or belittle the Square or the wonderful volunteer work the Friends of Rittenhouse Square provides. On the contrary! It is a key asset to the city and should be cared for, preserved and enhanced accordingly. Though lighting improvements have already been made and stonework restoration (walls flanking the park entrances) is in progress, a large-scale renovation is needed.

Regardless, if you think Rittenhouse Square looks just fine or is in an already wealthy area and needs are greater elsewhere in Philadelphia, you are part of contingency that thinks there is little to improve on. The next time you are in the square look a little closer at the crumbling sidewalks, damaged stonework or perpetual battle to keep the grass alive. Take note of the lack of any landmark or commemoration for David Rittenhouse himself or the way the center of the square actually has less people and a diminished ability to support them than the axis that leads you there. Take note of the empty guard booth and the landscaping that, although preserved well by a rather modest budget, only has the most common of plants available at Home Depot. 

Consider that this square is the city’s premier square in terms of density of usage and proximity to residential, commercial and professional buildings. Take into account that comparable large cities in the US and Europe spend much more on their premier public spaces than we do on Rittenhouse, with noticeably better results. The funds may not all come from the public coffers, but the amount of money is certainly much higher.

Last year in a meeting of the Friends of Rittenhouse Square, a member asked why Rittenhouse Square can’t look more like the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. Of course the reasons are multifaceted, but at the most basic level, the money spent to preserve a comparatively sized park in Paris is nearly ten times higher than what we spend on Rittenhouse. Our premier square in Philadelphia is running on a pauper’s budget, and not keeping pace with the slow atrophy of its infrastructure. If we want a better Rittenhouse we need to extend its welcome beyond its current walls, dramatically improve the streets that flank it making way for more pedestrians and bikes, and landmark the square with cobblestone, richer materials and historical markers for David Rittenhouse. We need to improve the way it works by concentrating usage in the central core, preventing intrusion into flower beds and grass and consider ways we can revisit the Paul Cret design and update it to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Funding can be leveraged from new Morris columns for regular and tasteful advertising and perhaps even a small restaurant on the far west side of the square. Other options previously mentioned include free wifi in the square provided by a local internet behemoth (Comcast) or sponsorship of flowerbeds by other organizations like Wyeth or Aramark. Programmatic temporary installations from organizations like the Philadelphia Museum of Art could be a win win for both the square who could stand to gain in rental fees for displays, and the sponsoring institution. What better way to lure more people up to the Ben Franklin Parkway cluster of museums than by reminding them of exhibits in a square used daily by residents and tourists. The Square should be nothing less than world-class. It is time we start treating it that way. |

Last Updated: Friday, 21 February 2014 @ 20.43
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Written By: 
geoff's picture Geoff Kees Thompson Founder + Urban Planner Website: thisoldcity.com About the Author:

Other than time away from Philly studying his masters in Urban Planning in the Netherlands, Geoff has lived here since 2005. He founded This Old City to advocate for better public space as a means to economic development, improved public health, lower crime and a more environmentally sustainable future. He currently sits on the Executive Board of SOSNA and is the head volunteer gardener for Saint Mark's Church at 1625 Locust Street.


He is also Chair of The 5th Square PAC, an organization committed to voter education and the funding of progressive urbanist candidates for Philadelphia's future. 


Follow This Old City on Twitter @thisoldcity and Facebook or Geoff individually @geoffkees

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