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April 16, 2015

East Passyunk 'gateway' project breaks ground, changes look

Business owners, residents scratch heads over new rendering

Urban Planning Design
Groundbreaking East Passyunk Gateway Brandon Baker/PhillyVoice

Sam Sherman, left, and Councilman Mark Squilla, right, were in attendance at Wednesday night's groundbreaking.

The Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation broke ground Wednesday evening on the long-anticipated, William Penn Foundation-funded "gateway" project at Broad and McKean streets, a renovation originally set to break ground in May of last year. 

Major surrounding neighborhood associations representing Newbold, South Broad Street and East Passyunk Avenue showed up for the ceremony and are supportive of the overhaul, but some residents have been taken aback by a new rendering that tagged along for the ground breaking -- one that looks startlingly unfamiliar compared to what was first unveiled.

Changes include the removal of a central fountain, a redesigned pergola, removal of the Bike Share and the addition of undulant lighting.

Gateway Rendering
The updated rendering of the renovated East Passyunk Avenue Gateway at Broad and McKean streets. Studio Bryan Hanes /

“The committee, within our board, decided the fountain was pushing the project over budget -- we were running out of money, and the other concern was long-term maintenance costs of maintaining the fountain," Sam Sherman, executive director of PARC, told "Some members of the committee also doubted that it would be used in the same way the Tasker fountain is."

In addition, he says, the city changed sizing specs for the Bike Share, which at 60-feet-long no longer makes it an ideal fit for the space. However, Sherman says he aims to eventually implement the Bike Share elsewhere on the avenue. 

Original Gateway Rendering

One of the original renderings for the East Passyunk Avenue gateway project. Studio Bryan Hanes /

“The goal right now is to announce the gateway, to let people know this is the beginning of East Passyunk Avenue – to provide a place to linger, to program, to do a farmer’s market on the weekend, a lunch truck thing, a couple of pop ups, and a space where the civic associations can use it for any kind of event they want to pull together," Sherman says.

The finished space, which costs $500,000, will also host six tables and a brand-new "big tree" to replace a string of locust trees currently pushing up roots from beneath the sidewalk. A brick planter across the street will also be removed, with 11 all-new gabion planters being spread throughout the vicinity; the initial gateway planter, the Business Improvement District told, will temporarily feature a piece from the Art Museum's Inside|Out exhibit.

Any criticism of the project's sudden changes, Sherman says, rolls off of him "like water on a duck's back."

"Everyone can be an armchair planner," he says of some harsh online comments from residents, "but they’re not sitting dealing with a group trying to stay within a certain budget. They can criticize all they want.”

Elissa Kara, owner of Nice Things Handmade at 1731 East Passyunk Avenue, told the new rendering looks "drastically different" than what was previously unveiled in 2014. She's still in favor of the project, calling it a "positive statement for South Broad Street," but says a bolder statement might have been more impactful.

"The area's changing, and that block is definitely a challenge," she says. "There's a lot of energy going into making that a strong end [of the avenue], but then you have that whole block of 1900 ..."

Her primary concern is that the new area could be an "amusement park" for loiterers. 

Nor is she alone with that concern.

Melissa Blimline-Morales resides at 13th and Snyder streets and manages the Dollar Tree at 2007 South Broad Street, footsteps from the gateway. Though she says she loves the idea of transforming the space, she fears that the outside seating may be premature for an area that's yet to catch up to the avenue's development, and that the project could threaten the security of her store's late-night freight shipments and workers.

"When you start putting benches out there, and there aren't a lot of things open at night, what will they be doing there?" Blimline-Morales told "I'm concerned there will be sleeping, and hanging out and crime. ... It's not a very developed spot yet, so it opens up that spot all night long for not-so-great people to be loitering, looking into my backyard and seeing what's going on."

And without the fountain from the original plan, she says, she's unsure anyone will want to use the space at all, particularly because many stores are closed by 10 p.m., and the space is sandwiched between banks.

"I'm not sure that Palladino's or Green Olives Cafe are enough of a draw," she says. "What is it that's going to make them want to come to that area, especially? It's high-traffic, and it's loud."

Gateway Project Groundbreaking

Sam Sherman, left, and Councilman Mark Squilla, right, were in attendance at Wednesday night's groundbreaking. Brandon Baker /

First District City Councilman Mark Squilla, who was in attendance at the groundbreaking, says the loitering concerns aren't yet warranted.

“When you put in something like this, there’s always a fear of: ‘Will there be vagrants sitting there?’" Squilla told "I remember when they talked about having outdoor dining in Center City, and people said, ‘You’re going to have homeless people hanging all over it! You’re going to have trash! You’re going to have rats running up! Its going to destroy Center City!’ And that didn’t happen. Because what happens, is you attract people who appreciate things like this who come here. And also, we have lighting -- people who want to do bad things do not go in lighted areas."

The appropriate response, he says, is to give the revamped space a shot, and react accordingly. 

"I don’t feel like it’ll be a problem, and if we do [have loitering and crime], we’ll have security and police and lighting and cameras -- whatever is necessary to make sure this is what it’s intended to be," he says. "Which is to say, a true gateway to Passyunk.”