The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is 100 years old. To mark the occasion, Philly is in the middle of a year of celebrations, from dazzling interactive art installations along the Parkway to special exhibitions at all of the cultural institutions that line it.
But amid all the attention put on the Parkway, one question keeps coming up: How could the Parkway be better?
Originally meant to serve as a connection between Center City and Fairmount Park, the Ben Franklin Parkway today serves as a six-lane highway that’s often a nightmare for pedestrians to cross. It’s also home to tons of events throughout the year, causing constant road closures.
It may be 100 years old, but the Parkway is nowhere near finished. “The goal of this is to begin a conversation to confirm that this place is not done,” said Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District.
The problems and potential of the Parkway have been discussed many times over the years, but a new documentary called Parkway 100 questions the future of the boulevard once again.
At a panel discussion hosted by CCD, local experts shared their qualms and aspirations for the future Parkway, recommending everything from residential to more playgrounds to capped parking. Here’s what they had to suggest.
1. Build more housing
Some 70,000 people live within a 10-minute walking distance of the Parkway, but only a small percentage of those folks actually live on it. “Developers don’t see it as beach front property. It’s sad that we have this tremendous asset and don’t have people clamoring to be on it,” said architect Cecil Baker.
The residential buildings that do line the highway are fronted by parking, further separating residents from the Parkway. Said Baker, “It’s no wonder people say, ‘We don’t want any more tall residential here.’ They look at what’s there already and shudder.’”
Landscape architect Laurie Olin said that there’s just been a lack of imagination and will to design and develop here. Adding more density to the boulevard could help turn it into a mixed-use area versus a one-stop shop for cultural institutions, closing the gap with both buildings and people. And the higher, the better, said Olin: “The worst thing we can do is build low.”
2. “Sink the parking”
There is parking all up and down the Parkway, in front of residential buildings and—except for five weeks of the summer—on the eight-acre parking lot known as Eakins Oval. Gail Harrity, the president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said, “Sink the parking.”
That’s what the museum did when it worked with OLIN and Atkin Olshin Schade Architects to create a 442-car underground parking garage on its grounds. It’s tucked into a hillside and obscured by boulder walls. On top of it sits a 26,000-square-foot green roof space.
3. Bring back City Branch
Right by the Parkway is City Branch, a 1.75-mile abandoned tunnel that’s just waiting to be reused in some way. Sandy Smith of Philly Mag asked the panel why not bring it back as a way to bring more people to the Parkway? Not only would it further connect surrounding neighborhoods like Brewerytown, Spring Garden, Fairmount, and Strawberry Mansion, but it would potentially reduce the amount of car traffic that floods the Parkway each day.
4. Replace traffic lanes with sidewalk cafes
At its largest point, the Parkway mushrooms to six lanes. That’s one too many, said Kathryn Ott Lovell, executive director of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department.
Take the Champs-Elysees, one of the most iconic boulevards in the world and the inspiration for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It removed two traffic lanes to make way for wider sidewalks, some lined with cafes, and more efforts are on the way to reduce traffic congestion there by 2025.
5. Adopt a “less is more” attitude for programming
Long-time Logan Square resident Mark Silow said of the Parkway, “It’s half a tremendous amenity and half a liability.” The liability is that a portion of the Parkway is closed 33 weekends of the year for an event—hello NFL Draft, Made in America, parades, etc.—causing a never-ending headache for Logan Square and Art Museum area residents.
In response, the Parkway Council embarked on a study in July to explore Parkway events and their effects on the the cultural institutions and residents. When the study ends in January, the council will use the results from focus groups and surveys to determine what kind of events and programming are worthy of the Parkway.
6. Connect to the trails
The original goal of the Parkway was to connect Center City with Fairmount Park, but that hasn’t really happened. That’s one of the reasons why this past year’s Oval+ focused on bringing the park to the Parkway, highlighting the history of Fairmount Park and envisioning what the Parkway could be.
Ott Lovell said with the Parkway sandwiched between the Schuylkill River Trail and Kelly Drive, both heavily trafficked by cyclists, runners, and walkers each day, the time is now to consider how to better connect the three together.
7. Activate Pennsylvania Avenue
In 2013, PennPraxis came out with a plan for the Parkway called “More Park, Less Way.” It’s clear that one of its top recommendations was for the Parkway to return to a park, not a boulevard.
Olin agrees, arguing that Pennsylvania Avenue, which runs along the Parkway, is an underutilized, low-density asset that could be home to both residential and public spaces. He points to the baseball fields on this stretch that could benefit from more playgrounds and play areas.
“The solution isn’t in the middle, it’s on the sidelines,” Olin said.