Sunday, August 9, 2009

Everything wrong with Independence Mall, Philadelphia

View north of Independence Hall, pre-1950s

What the folks at the Independence Visitors' Center won't tell you is that the heart of Philadelphia's "most historic square mile" is ironically also the worst preserved section of the city's downtown. Shortly after the National Park Service's creation of Independence National Historic Park around Old City and Independence Hall in 1948 (which involved its own destruction of old but not "historic" buildings) Philadelphia megaplanner Ed Bacon and associated Planning Commission began to devise what would be their worst plan ever implemented.

Very much a modern apparition of City Beautiful planning, the vision of Independence Mall was to create a new axis north of Independence Hall by widening 5th and 6th Streets between Chestnut and Race Streets, replacing everything in between 5th and 6th with parkland, and lining it all with new corporate and civic buildings of uniform massing. There was apparently no perceived shame or contradiction in demolishing several fine-grained, 19th century, uniquely Philadelphian downtown blocks to extend a historic park ("it ain't historic unless it's red brick colonial!")

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia

Even more depressing is how incredibly lackluster its replacement is. To begin with, the immense scale of the Mall acts as a significant barrier to pedestrian connectivity between Market East and Old City. Save for the Rohm & Haas headquarters, 5th and 6th Streets along the Mall are home to the city's most uninspiring Modernist architecture, with absolutely atrocious sidewalk presence. The terrible urban design here creates an incredible deadening effect on a three-block stretch between 4th and 7th Streets, decimating any form of street life.

No love was put into the US Mint Building

The Mall never generated the kind of visitor traffic used by planners to justify the project, and the National Park Service recently finished a complete re-landscaping of the Mall's open space in an effort to increase visitation. Neither is it much of an amenity to local residents, as there is nary a Philadelphian who volunteers to spend his or her free time here. None of this is really unexpected if one believes that parks are only as vibrant as their immediate surroundings.

It's simply a travesty that Independence Mall, the city's premier tourist site just steps away from the symbolic birthplace of American democracy, is such a terribly boring place with no visible history to speak of. Yes, these are harsh words, but I'm certain that these thoughts will ring true to many others.

The famous Chicago planner Daniel Burnham is often remembered for the statement, "Make no small plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood." But we would do just as well to keep in mind that big plans can easily become big mistakes.

Photo credit:
1. Gehr, Herbert. "Independence Hall Philadelphia." LIFE Photo Archive. Google Images. 9 Aug. 2009.
2. Independence National Historic Park. "Independence Mall, 1979." Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation. 9 Aug. 2009.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

you can say this about a majority of "city beautiful" projects of the mid-20th century brian.
I-95 along the delaware river is a bigger f-up.

imagine what would have been if the United Nations selected phila as their home as they were about to do before a manhattan developer swept in and stole the project.

but then again their is no value in "what could have been"

eric wilson