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A slide from Streets Department’s MLK Drive presentation

The Philadelphia Art Commission on Wednesday approved a motion to allow the Streets Department to begin construction on the MLK Drive Bridge, but did not approve of the concept that was put forth.

This is good. Here’s why.

When the Streets Department presented their concept for the MLK Drive Bridge (which connects MLK Drive to the Art Museum and Eakins Oval) last month, the public comments were wary of their idea to create a 10′ side path along the bridge. Given how many people testified regarding both the plan for a small side path, and the acknowledgement that more than 5,000 people had signed a petition calling for the Kenney Administration to reimagine the future of MLK Drive, the Art Commission sent the Streets Department back to the drawing board and asked them to come to this month’s meeting with an updated concept.

They came back on Wednesday with the same basic concept but with acknowledgements that the concept could easily be changed after the bridge is reconstructed. This was met with skepticism, as the Art Commission members all seemed to agree that MLK Drive, and the Bridge, need to be reimagined to better accommodate the usage of the past year, in which more than 5,000 car-free people have used the Drive on weekdays, and nearly 10,000 on weekend days.

After some back and forth, and a wave of public comments, the Art Commission agreed to approve the Streets Department beginning construction, but did not approve of the 10.5′ side path concept, noting a lane of traffic should at least be dropped to accommodate new users of the Drive.

While the entire process is a bit confusing, the Art Commission needs to approve a concept for the project to move forward. The Streets Department came to the meeting on Wednesday with the original concept but additional slides and images showing that it could be improved upon if needed.

The commission eventually decided not to approve that, but to allow Streets to begin the process of bridge construction noting they needed to go back to the Commission with a concept in order to install the new path and put in lane markings.

Many members of the Art Commission echoed the comments that were heard, including the idea that a pre-pandemic concept should not be approved, especially given the increase in usage over the past year.

Bridge construction, noted the Streets Department representative Darin Gati, would likely take two years and that ideas to reimagine the Drive are currently “being evaluated” and are “on the table.” But the main issue is that a lane drop in the future would mean the pedestrians would have their own space, bicycles would have their own space, and drivers would have own space. Unfortunately, this was not up for approval, although most agreed it should have been.

As Bicycle Coalition city organizer Lor Song noted in his comments to the Art Commission,

With the understanding that this is just a piece of the process, we want to reiterate that the administration needs to work with Council to, at the very least, drop a lane of motor vehicle traffic to allow for multiple trail uses. Not just for people on standard bicycles, but people riding adaptive bicycles, people who use wheelchairs, and even people who ride horses.

 

More than 5,300 people have called for the administration to reimagine what MLK Drive looks like in the future, the same way other cities have begun rethinking their streets. Since you are looking at that for the Bridge, the Streets Department, OTIS and the rest of the administration need to be public about what the rest of the Drive will look like.

 

We are working to hear many more opinions from community organizations and stakeholders in the area, but we need the administration to take the lead and let the people of Philadelphia know what they want the future of the Drive to be. While we appreciate the updates since the last meeting, we still need to see an actual plan from the Streets Department. If everyone agrees that a lane should be dropped, that is the design that should be approved.

It should be noted that several people issued public comments to the Commission on Wednesday. Every single comment called for more accommodations for people, not cars. Big thanks to all who participated, and to urbanist PAC 5th Square for alerting your members about the meeting.

In the end, what the Art Commission approved — Streets beginning construction, but without a concept — was a huge step forward. Not only was Wednesday’s meeting the first public acknowledgement from the city that MLK Drive needs to be re-evaluated, but the Art Commission is essentially forcing them to do it in order to gain eventual approval of a concept for the bridge.

This means is that it’s time for the administration to step up and begin the process of understanding the best usage of MLK Drive post-pandemic.

What that process looks like, in our opinion, is studying traffic patterns along I-76, speaking to the thousands of people who use MLK every day, conducting community outreach to the neighborhoods near the Drive, as well as the organizations who use the space and boat houses along the river, and coming up with a plan that works for everyone.

We have noted this before, but it’s worth repeating: It’s time for the City to lead the conversation and respond to the thousands of people who now use MLK Drive every day. Grab a table, and make sure everyone has a seat at it.

And it is our responsibility, as well as the City’s, to elicit community feedback on these proposals and make sure whichever proposal is chosen for MLK Drive, it is for the benefit of the near neighborhoods, the city, and region at large. But going back to the status quo — MLK as a dangerous, urban speedway through a city park, cutting people off from the Schuylkill River — is not acceptable.

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