North Central Philadelphia has plenty of assets—a busy regional rail station, Cousin’s Supermarket, the Pearl Theatre, Penrose Recreation Center, and a constellation of community schools and playgrounds. However, North Central’s residents don’t always tap into everything the neighborhood has to offer because it often requires them to walk through one of several dank, dark, and littered underpasses of a rail viaduct.
North Central is currently the focus of a Choice Implementation Grant, awarded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through a competitive grant process. When Philadelphia’s Division of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) applied for the grant, the agency emphasized the importance of connecting the communities to the east and west of the viaduct.
Choice Neighborhoods stands out from past HUD funding programs like Hope VI by providing funding for community improvements beyond housing. In North Central, HUD allocated $24 million for 297 units of affordable, mixed-income homeownership housing. An additional $9 million was earmarked for Critical Community Improvements to provide educational and social services programming for residents, spur economic development, and make physical improvements that will benefit the community as a whole.
“We recognized that the viaduct was a big impediment for people,” says Long. “We want to make people less hesitant to cross over,” says Melissa Long, Deputy Director of DHCD. The Community Design Collaborative was asked to apply design thinking and placemaking techniques to several viaduct underpasses to transform them from barriers into connectors.
Re-envisioning Three Underpasses
Three viaduct underpasses were chosen as the focus for the project--each has a unique look and feel. “The Norris Street underpass is an entry point to the Temple University SEPTA Station and has a larger scale”, says Jake Shoemaker, an architect with Ballinger and leader of the Collaborative’s volunteer design team. “The Diamond Street underpass has an ‘L’ shape that gives the impression of a long, dark tunnel, and Susquehanna has an intimate scale and adjacent green space that is overgrown and trash strewn.”
Developing design concepts ranged from visioning to assessing practical constraints. For example, the team presented 26 images of installations and artwork to the community, giving residents an opportunity to choose ideas that they liked or disliked. “This was instrumental in informing some of the design strategies we employed,” says Shoemaker.
“We were both shocked and excited when over 300 completed surveys were received. This was especially helpful in defining the key challenges at these underpasses: lack of lighting, crime/safety, vandalism, litter, and creating a design with an identity reflective of the community.”
In a very different form of investigation, the team asked engineers from SEPTA and the Streets Department to outline the building and budget constraints on making improvements to an active rail line. These inquiries helped the team come up with a range of design options and intervention. Shoemaker says that the project was about more than individual designs for each underpass, “We also explored the connectivity among them too.”
Architects, landscape architects, lighting designers, and artists collaborated on improvements to transform three underpasses. Their designs—inspired by the themes of “stream”, “beacon”, and “porch”—drew upon neighborhood history and landscape.
The city and its partners are appreciative of all the hard work. “The team was exceptional! The Collaborative brought in not only architects, but lighting specialists and artists,” says Long. “This project really shows how the Collaborative creates a specialized team for each project. It does not take a cookie cutter approach.”
“What’s exciting is that this provides a framework. It’s an example of leveraging activities… they all fit together,” says Long. Following the project, DHCD provided support for SafeGrowth® to train residents and stakeholders surrounding 10th and Diamond on how to assess safety risks and resolve crime and safety problems in a variety of ways.
SafeGrowth’s strategies include asset mapping, safety audits, placemaking and innovative police problem solving programs. The Collaborative’s design concepts will support North Central’s efforts to turn each of their underpasses into safe passages (and even destinations) for positive community interaction.
“There was a recognition that each underpass was unique, and that each should represent the residents that live in and around it. You can’t just do uniform improvements,” concludes Long. “Whatever form the connections under the viaduct take, each will be responding to its immediate community.”
See our project profile to learn more about the Making Connections project and volunteer team.