Born and raised in Fishtown, Conrad Benner is a photo-blogger, curator, and podcaster. He is the founder of Streets Dept, a member of WHYY’s News and Information Community Exchange.
After over a decade of planning and a year of construction on the project, many Philly residents were hoping to see one of the city’s busiest and best-known streets capped at last with a people-centered public space.
Instead, we saw the unveiling of an updated parking lot.
Adjacent to the historic Headhouse Shambles, the median running along 2nd Street between South and Lombard does now feature a pretty brick pathway and a pair of picnic tables. The number of parking spots that flank the path were reduced slightly, so the area has room for one-quarter fewer cars.
But it’s hard to imagine a less inviting space than what Philadelphians discovered this week when construction fences were finally removed at what’s now called Headhouse Plaza.
“THIS is what they were working on all of this time?” asked Camille Mola on Instagram, who was not alone in posting an incredulous reaction.
“I live down the block. Happy it’s finally done, but uninviting is a great word for it.” neighbor Bally Radatti added.
Famed South Street bar and restaurant Tattooed Mom, located just a few blocks away, expressed disappointment: “Such a lost opportunity. This gives us bus station vibes.”
“Woof. I’m sweating just looking at this, talk about heat island effect!” commentor Norah Salamone said, noting how little shade the new design offers.
The decades-old asphalt parking lot is now a bricked parking lot with an open area at its end. It’s a slab of nothing with next to no greenery and few basic amenities like benches.
How is this what we ended up with? It’s far from an accident or fluke.
Believe it or not, this design went through many reviews and approvals. The new plaza looks astonishingly similar to the renderings shared by Ambit Architecture in 2017, when the city Art Commission gave formal approval. (That a real-life plaza looks like renderings is a statement unto itself.)
The design seems to continue a couple of trends when it comes to revamping Philly’s public spaces.
First trend: Using hostile architecture to deter unhoused people. The only places to sit in the new Headhouse Plaza are the two picnic tables and a few round cement pillars that stick out from the ground. These backless seating options are designed to keep people from relaxing too much or sticking around for too long.
Second: Building spaces as sparingly as possible. This means they’re not very welcoming unless they’re programmed by renters.
The recent redesign of LOVE Park is a perfect example: instead of a famous varied surface renowned by skateboarders worldwide, it’s a featureless cement slab that only comes alive when some event is held there. Dilworth Park next to City Hall has a public fountain that kids love, but the space is managed by the Center City District, which has gone on record saying the goal is to make the park profitable via events and programming so it pays for its own upkeep.
This is a terrible new way of thinking about civic space: not as publicly-funded amenities important for the well-being of people living in our city, but as business opportunities that must turn a profit to survive.
If you’ve ever been to Philly, you know that no matter the time of year, South Street is crowded. It’s frequented by teens, tourists, artists, musicians, shoppers, and diners, and the list goes on.
The redesign of this block could have worked to provide public restrooms for all those visitors, as well as more gathering space. Instead, its emptiness seems to prioritize event rentals and cars. If businesses in the area are worried about out-of-town customers having a place to park, there’s a four-story parking lot caddy-corner from the plaza, as well as several large, open lots a block away at Front Street.
What if this district prioritized the artists that have in part helped to make South Street the destination that it is? There could have been freewalls for artists to create rotating murals or a small stage for musicians and performance artists.
A city is its public space. It’s built into the foundation of Philadelphia, which William Penn famously planned out as a “greene country towne.”
What does it say to us when a redesign of such a large stretch of open space in Philly makes event renters and parking spaces the priority over people? A decade of planning and the crowds that support South Street now have a picnic bench to share. This could have, and should have, been so much more.