Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Planning the Park West Area

Fixing wasted potential west of Fairmount Park

The Park West area is special in my heart because it's where I live. It consists of three Philadelphia neighborhoods--Wynnefield, Wynnefield Heights, and Belmont Village--west of Fairmount Park and east of the Main Line (you can see it passing Overbrook Station), as well as Bala and Cynwyd* villages in Montgomery County. It's home to St. Joseph's University, the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, two more seminaries, and about 30,000 jobs clustered between City Line and St. Alsaph's east of Belmont Avenue. It even boasts a minor skyline accentuated by its hilltop locale.

But it's a weird place. The job core in Cynwyd is like Corbusier's wet dream, towers surrounded by an expanse of parking. Apartment and condo developments attempt to be towers-in-a-park while at the same time turning a blind eye to the beautiful expanse of upper Fairmount Park. So ignored, in fact, is it that what should be prime land that airlites, not towers, border the park!

Other than that, City Line from Belmont to St. Joe's is a fairly typical example of a suburban strip. Philly's Saks and a Lord and Taylor, oddly enough, reside here. St. Joe's has two residence halls (Rashford and Borgia) hugging the street--a first--but neither goes the next step and develops ground-floor retail. The fact the base is used for parking is hopeful, however; the available floorplates are large and easily enclosed, should desire merit. Finally, City Line is home to a number of 1920s-era garden apartments; these are the district's oldest buildings and are a handsome building stock.
The plan is split into three sections for convenience: the section including Wynnefield Heights and the Cynwyd office core is the picture above, and the one for the stretch of Parkside behind the Mann Center below.
The pictures are simple enough, but a word about the transportation plan: the 10 extension, 49, and 100 proposals from Philadelphia2050 are all worked in, as is (parenthetically) the Cemetery Heights line. The 10 extension is a fairly straightforward lengthening of the existing line about five blocks up 63rd from the current loop just south of Woodbine up to the Overbrook train station, low in expense and moderate in impact; the 100 (fuller post later) would be a route stretching from 69th Street Terminal up to Ivy Ridge via City Line and Main Street Manayunk; it would run predominantly on a dedicated ROW in the middle of City Line. City Line itself would be made a complete street according to best practices. In Wynnefield Heights, the 38 and 40 have been reworked slightly, and the 39 extended from its current terminus across the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, allowing for a more direct route from this jobs center to Temple U. and the nicer parts of Kensington. These routes now all service nearly all Wynnefield Heights' main byways. In the longer term, with parkside densification, a light rail extension, perhaps a conversion of the 40 into light rail and a rerouting of the bus lines, will make sense. As it is, there are too many towers-in-a-park there now, and not enough towers-by-the-park to make this section of the city seem a destination.

Two other major transportation features in this plan are (1) adding pedestrian interlinkages in the superblock between Presidential, Monument, Neill, and Conshohocken, as well as a pedestrian path along the park edge (Parkside Avenue is extended for lot access), and (2) the extension of the Cynwyd Trail from Cynwyd Station down to Bryn Mawr Avenue. This will connect the Belmont Plateau into the region bike network, and offer a new bike route between Center City and the Main Line, as well as a velocentric interconnection between Center City and Cynwyd. Eventually, this route will cross the Pencoyd Viaduct and connect with the Schuylkill Valley Trail near Shawmont.
Finally, this plan establishes a TOD area around Overbrook. Despite its regional importance, the place where City Line crosses the Main Line is underbuilt. The Executive Apartments turn a parking garage to the street; the corner of City Line and 63rd across from the station is a grassy lawn between two garden apartments. St. Charles Borromeo Seminary has a massive grassy field fronting City Line less than 500 feet from the station, and the Merion Gardens too snubs the main artery. Overbrook is where the Thorndale Line, 10, and 100 meet; it is the south anchor of City Line; densification here is most important.

So there you have it, and you also have my philosophy towards urban planning: zoning and design guidelines (face the street, numbskulls!) are my arbiters--I do not urban plan at the site level. Transportation planning, however, is one of the most importation parts of urban planning, and thus (outside of upzoning and preservation areas), most of my urban planning is actually access (transportation) planning.
* Pronounce: Kin-wood.

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