It's been 15 years since the Independence Visitor Center opened its doors at Market and 6th streets as part of Independence National Historical Park's master plan. And president and CEO Jim Cuorato knows it's time for a change.
After four years of planning, the most-visited venue in Southeastern Pennsylvania is about to undergo a $15 million renovation that will include a new upper-level terrace, a bigger gift shop, new bathrooms, and more welcoming, well, welcome desks.
"So much has changed in the last 15 years," says Cuorato. "We wanted to update the building and give it a more modern feel, keeping in mind we are in a historical district.
He adds, "But most importantly, we want to enhance the visitors' experience by giving them information in different ways."
That includes new touch-screens that will line a wall, allowing visitors to plan their stay in Philadelphia and download their agenda onto their smartphones. For those still looking for that personal interaction with the multilingual staff, they'll be nearby at a new welcome desk.
In addition, the second movie theater will be enclosed by a glass wall and feature a 7- to 10-minute orientation video to the city.
"The idea is to get people excited about being here," says Cuorato.
But one of the biggest renovations will involve the gift shop. It's currently located at the entrance off Market and 6th Street. But as the biggest source of revenue for Independence Visitor Center, it's also the most cramped.
"During our busiest times in the summer, it's literally elbow-to-elbow in here," says Cuorato. "It's not a pleasant browsing experience."
The plan is to expand the gift shop by 50 percent. In order to do that, the bathrooms will move to the right side of the building that faces the mall.
We want to enhance the visitors' experience by giving them information in different ways
The redesign will also aim to encourage visitors to walk up to the new welcome desks from the Market and 6th Street entrance, via digital screens that will line the walls.
"When people come in, they see the gift shop and restroom, but they don’t know what’s up there," Cuorato says, pointing toward the welcome desks. "So one of the things we wanted to do is make it generally pull people into the building and let them know that good information is up ahead."
At the other end of the building, the sightseeing tours will be lined up in a more coherent fashion and the grab-and-go food stations will move to the very end. Visitors will also be able to sit and work out their travel schedules in a new Trip Planning station. Currently, tourists tend to sit on the floors or stairs while planning their travel agenda, says Cuorato.
In total, the renovation is expected to cost $15 million and is being designed by local architects SaylorGregg, the same firm behind the Franklin Institute's recent renovations.
The Independence Visitor, which is owned by the National Parks Service but managed by a 501c3 non-profit organization, has raised $2 million to date. It also has an application in for a $3.2 million grant from the Redevelopment Assistant Capital Program.
If all goes to plan, Cuorato says construction bids should begin in July. The first phase of the renovation—the bathrooms—will start in September after the Democratic National Convention.
The whole renovation is estimated to take two years, and the center plans to remain open.
"I think it’s going to really enhance everything we’re doing right now," says Cuorato. "Every person that comes into the visitor center needs to have a pleasant and a positive experience. Because in a lot of cases, we are their first impression of Philadelphia."
- Philadelphia Parks: Then and Now [Curbed Philly]
- The smallest National Park in the U.S. is in Philly [Curbed Philly]