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Thursday, 26 March 2009

Head-on Collison

Civic Heavyweights
'Crash' on The Parkway

Inga Saffron, bottom; Paul Levy, top (Junto Photos/Richard Carreno)

By Richard Carreño

Staff Writer
While The Inquirer's high-profile architectural critic Inga Saffron was last week dissing the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for its 'splendid emptiness,' Philadelphia's equally prominent city planning guru Paul Levy was, almost at the same time, unveiling a proposal to animate the boulevard, often noted for grandeur -- and a perverse anti-pedestrianism. Apparently, Saffron, Philadelphia's powerful arbiter of urban design, architectural taste, historical preservation, and other stuff (gosh, she's even written a book about caviar) didn't get the memo from Levy's Center City District.

The contrast between the two public policy heavyweights -- often on the same page when it comes to what's up in Philadelphia (at least, things that go up 30 floors or so) -- couldn't have been starker -- especially giving the timing of their pronuciamentos. Saffron delivered her stinging remarks Monday, and just a day later, Tuesday evening, no less, Levy presented his rosy update on continuing redevelopment on Philly's 'Main Street,' dubbed such in a PR coup from when the boulevard was constructed in the 1920s.

Even the speaking venues seemed to underscore how incommunicado this dynamic duo were (are?) -- only by 24 hours they would have been in hand-holding distance. Saffron spoke at the Moore College of Art and Design, literally next door to its Parkway neighbor, the Academy of Natural Sciences, where Levy showed up.

Saffron went in for the kill, arguing, in a subdued, almost in a bored, way, that the Parkway is defined by one, and only one, mission -- as a cultural corridor. It's monumental size, while a visual and environmental asset, also has a 'disadvantage' Saffron told her audience, including such Parkway advocates as Happy Fernandez, the college's president.

Besides, Saffron went on, where else but in Philadelphia would a grand boulevard like the Parkway include such problematic open space as its fiercely-defended baseball diamond, just spitting distance from its jewel in the crown, the Philadelphia Museum of Art?

Imagine a baseball field on Fifth Avenue in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Think a cricket pitch slap dab in the middle of London's Mall. Say, I have an idea! How about a basketball court next to the Louis Vuitton shop on the Champs- Elysées? Nah, croquet maybe.... (Saffron didn't say all that, by the way. I'm just falling prey to my own muse).

But Saffron did go on to say that the downside to the Parkway's montumentalism has been, over time, too many empty blocks. While many people work around the Parkway, live around it, and shop around it,'There's not enough density, not enough going on.... There's a ton of empty space, and ton of disconnection.' This, too, despite the future stamp of the Barnes Foundation museum that's currently under construction at 20th Street.

'There's not enough stuff. Why is it that on the premier cultural boulevard of Philadelphia, you can't buy a bottle of water?'

Actually, if Saffron had sussed out Levy's plan -- obviously in the making for many months -- she would have known that, yes, water, and other amenities, as well, were exactly what he has in mind. In mind, that is, specifically for Sister City Park, an under-utilized (hell, almost forgotten) bit of greenery fronting the Cathedral Basilica of SS Peter and Paul.

Levy presented the plan as a $17-million done-deal that will evolve over the next year or so as another leap forward, if not exactly for mankind, at least, for pedestrian-kind, like the renovation of Aviator's Park in front of Franklin Institute; the creation of the Paul Cret Cafe, across from LOVE Park; and the do-over of Logan Square itself.

To be created, Levy announced, will be a children's 'discovery' park, a boat pond, a new fountain, a chalk drawing area (again, naturally enough, for kids), and a combination cafe and community room. All existing statuary will remain, though rearranged. In all, Levy said, the new park will be the Cathedral's new 'forecourt,' richly planted as a site for wedding photo ops. (Whew! Is anyone else thinking it might be getting bit close in here?)

Levy's audience welcomed the park news enthusiastically. But whether Saffron got the communiqué -- memo to Center City District: send memos to Inga -- is questionable. I scanned the group to see if she were there. Saffron is relatively easy to spot: She's an attractive woman with longish black hair, styled in a Prince Valiant cut. (If I missed recognizing you, Inga, I'm sorry. I looked. I really did).

Eventually, all discussions about the Parkway end up confronting the two 800-pound gorillas that many city officials are loath to address: How to reroute traffic to slow-mode (again a pedestrian-friendly measure) and, what to do about the bums (in polite conversation, as was the case last week, known as 'homeless')?

At Saffron's event at Moore, I was the one, actually, who asked about the traffic issue, referencing the avenue as more 'raceway' than 'parkway.' Saffron doesn't know me, and so maybe she responds to lots of people the way she did with me. Just nodding, seemingly in agreement. (That somnambulistic thing kicking in again. Inga, snap out of it!)

It was soft-ball question. Easy Answer A: Green the service lanes as walkways, even, quaintly enough, as a bridle path. Easy Answer B: Build another traffic circle west of Logan Square to bottleneck (and hence, slow) traffic. Easiest Answer C: Time red lights for longer periods.

Saffron didn't take the A,B,C bait, and, in fairness to her, any response to my question probably would have wound up being squelched by the longwinded moderator, one Lorie Mertes. Mertes was way out of her league, having over-briefed herself, hoping to sound knowledgeable by babbling and rambling. At the end of the day, she sounded like a breathless, star-struck stand-up from Access Hollywood. OK, I might have it wrong, but I swear I heard Mertes actually say something when Saffron was nodding away that the evening's mission was to ask questions, not to answer them.

Huh? Anyway, on that note, I picked up and left. (Strange for me since I'm known as a reception grazer).

At Levy's gathering the buzz word was the 'homeless.' (Just for the record, this time I didn't raise the issue). Some of this brethren even now get fed and watered in Sister City Park, it was noted.

Levy, to his credit, is a hardliner on this issue, as he was last summer when The Inquirer discovered that some bums were fornicating in Rittenhouse Square. Levy's short answer: The bums get the bum's rush.

Memo to Saffron: I still luv ya!