After nearly a decade of heated debate, Philadelphia unveiled a $1 million plan to repave, upgrade and make Washington Avenue safer for pedestrians, drivers, cyclists and transit riders.
During a contentious meeting Tuesday evening at the Christian Street YMCA that was over capacity, city Deputy Managing Director for Transportation Mike Carroll presented the “mixed-use” plan of the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability (OTIS) to the public. According to the plan, Washington Avenue would be reconfigured from its current five lanes to a mixed-lane layout between 4th Street and Grays Ferry Avenue as part of a repaving project scheduled for later this year. The avenue would include five-, three- and four-lane portions.
“The meeting showed that there is a definite concern regarding the changing of the South Philadelphia community and the future of Washington Avenue,” Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson said. “You had long-term residents who had issues and concerns about the process and also the proposed plan.”
Washington Avenue is split between two City Council districts. The avenue from the Delaware River to Broad Street is in the 1st District, represented by Mark Squilla. The part of the avenue between the west side of Broad Street and Grays Ferry Avenue is in the 2nd District, represented by Johnson.
“I do believe that everyone wants to have a safer Washington Avenue, but what it looks like is still up for debate,” Johnson said. “I will be having a follow-up conversation with the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability just to gauge their feedback from yesterday. Are they going to make any additional recommendations or changes based on the feedback they have heard?”
Each part of Washington Avenue is very different demographically.
In the Point Breeze neighborhood, many longtime residents are people of color along with the business owners who serve them, said Claudia S. Sherrod, president of Point Breeze Community Network Plus.
And they tend to be concerned about gentrification and the perception that the city ignores them.
“The city was very rude. They gave us what they gave us and we’re supposed to accept their version. We are not going to accept this (and) will take it up with City Council,” Sherrod said. ”We’re going to take up the rest of this redesign right there. We would like Washington Avenue to remain the same. Our opinion is redesign is gentrification! We have been denied equity and inclusion.”
The neighborhood has been fighting for improved safety for many years, she said.
On the other side of Washington Avenue, the neighborhood is represented by community groups run by people who are mostly white, upscale and tend to be newer to the neighborhood, said Gabriel Pechaceck, founder of the Washington Avenue Association of Businesses and Residents and a member of the Washington Avenue Coalition.
That group favors the three-lane proposal with more bike lanes.
According to Carroll, the plan would reduce the pedestrian crossing distance to 33 feet or 40 feet on most blocks, compared with 50 feet at present. It assumes a minimal amount (5%) of cars being diverted to other parts of the neighborhood. In addition, the plan would improve protection for bicycles and provide “safe bus boarding islands in up to 24 locations.”
Out of 22 blocks from 4th Street and Grays Ferry Avenue, the mixed option would incorporate the following cross sections and protected bike lanes:
Four blocks with existing five-lane cross sections from 16th Street to 12th Street.
Eight blocks with four-lane cross sections from Grays Ferry Avenue to 25th Street; 20th Street to 16th Street; 12th Street to 10th Street; and 5th Street to 4th Street.
Ten blocks with three-lane cross sections from 25th Street to 20th Street and from 10th Street to 5th Street.
18 blocks with protected bike lanes from Gray Ferry Avenue to 16th Street and 12th Street to 4th Street.
The plan also includes pedestrian safety elements, such as flex posts, corner wedges, soft rumble strips and bus boarding islands and loading zones enforced by the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
Carroll said the plan should “substantially increase safety.”
But it seems that not many liked the plan on either side.
“Yesterday they found a way to upset 100% of both sides,” said Pechaceck, who manages his family’s business CK Auto Image at 718 Washington Ave. “Everyone was in an uproar. It was chaotic to say the least. I dislike it more than the original three-lane plan. It doesn’t really make sense to me. It just makes it confusing.”
The three- and the four-lane plans have the same amount of merges.
“Every bit of the planning for the ‘road diet’ says merges should be avoided at all costs,” Pechaceck said. “Why would we take a plan with more merges?”
But he is more concerned that efforts to slow down traffic on the avenue will result in drivers avoiding it, which will cause businesses that rely on traffic to suffer.
“The term ‘traffic calming’ for us is really another way of saying traffic jams,” Pechaceck said.
A lifelong resident of South Philadelphia, Johnson said, “I am going to also continue to listen and have conversations with the community leaders, residents and registered community organizations, prior to making the final decision before the legislation goes before Council. Ultimately we want to see a plan that is reflective of the diverse community of constituents that reside in the 2nd Councilmanic District.”