The Reckoner!

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Philadelphia Reckoning! Should Philadelphia ditch the section of I-95 between the Walt Whitman and Ben Franklin Bridges?

Yes, believe it or not, Philadelphia is built along not just one, but two rivers.  

One of those rivers is one of the most famous rivers in America -- the river that George Washington crossed to defeat the Hessians -- the river from which William Penn emerged to forge a new world -- a river on which the very foundations of this country were laid.  The other is most notable for having a completely unspellable name, and for having a highway named after it that would've been cast as the ninth circle of hell had Dante known about it in 1316.

And yet when it comes to city life and urban planning, the Schuylkill is absolutely destroying the Delaware river.  Ten years ago, the Schuykill already had Fairmount Park, Boathouse Row, both the River Drives, and the Art Museum going for it.  Now the actual Center City portion of the river -- long an industrial wasteland -- has suddenly become verdant and beautiful on its own. Everything is green.  People go there when they're not trying to exchange suitcases of cash with shadowly underworld figures.  It's astonishing!

The Delaware, meanwhile, is as dank as it has ever been.  That is, if you're aware that it even exists.  Because there's a damned highway that separates the river from the rest of the city.  Good ol' Ed Bacon, Kevin's Dad and longtime Grand Poobah of Philadelphia City Planning, routed I-95 right along the Delaware waterfront back in 1966, thus ensuring that there would never actually be a waterfront.  Instead, the Delaware River is almost completely absent from Philadelphia civic life, with the one possible exception that you can see it if you're eating in a window booth at the Columbus Boulevard Ikea.

But such may not be the case forever!  A few notable Philadelphians have been trying their damndest to get the city planning commission to think about ridding us of the eyesore of I-95 between the bridges, by either leveling it outright or turning it into a street level boulevard.  Geoff DiMasi of P'unk Avenue has been a prominent and passionate supporter, and Diana Lind, Editor At Large for Next American City has outlined a plan that would convert that strip of 95 from an elevated highway into something Philadelphia could actually call a 'waterfront'.

What do you think, Reckonauts-who-give-a-whit-about-Philadelphiado you think Philly should knock down the section of I-95 between the Walt Whitman and Ben Franklin, or do you think that's a nightmare waiting to happen?

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Reckoning Comments!

I used to think this proposal was the stuff of insanity when I first heard it.  I thought the concept of taking down that strip of I-95 would just make the city less accessible to the suburbs, which would do more harm than good in bringing those valuable tourism and entertainment dollars into the city.

Then I gave it some more thought, including the following mitigating factors:

  • For long distance I-95 commuters who aren't getting off in Philadelphia, you're not taking that seciton of I-95 anyway.  You're cutting the corner with the Delware Memorial Bridge and the New Jersey Turnpike.
  • For people coming outside of the city to get to the city, this doesn't really change your life at all.  Coming North from the city, everything down the Vine Street Expressway is still there.  Coming South, you'll still be able to get to the Broad Street exit (and those vital, vital sports complexes) no problem.
  • As somebody who lives in Queen Village, I use one of the exits that would get eliminated (Exit 20) all the time, so highway access would get a little more complicated, but no more than 5-10 minutes.  And, most importantly, I'd live near an actual waterfront.

To me, the biggest problem is that it makes it really inconvenient for people who live in Northeast Philly to get to the airport, which is a problem that shouldn't be ignored, but isn't necessary intractable on its own.

I-95 South is often an impenetrable mess, closely resembeling a parking lot, during morning rush hour.  It's so bad I usually skip it and take the Burlington-Bristol Bridge and 130 South, because despite the lights, I at least know when I'm going to arrive at work, as opposed to "It could be 20 minutes; it could be 2 hours. Who knows?"

I can only see this plan making I-95 even worse than it already is.

Put it underground like they did with 95 and 90 in Boston then you can build parks, commercial and residential property.

@James Macdonell

That would definitely be the best of both worlds, provided the city could actually pull it off.  It's a shame that the Big Dig turned into such a debacle, because it's going to make other cities gunshy about that type of urban re-engineering for a long, long time.

What really cost the The Big Dig was trying to keep I-90 and I-93 open while they were building the new one underground.  If there was any way to just reroute the I-95 traffic while the underground I-95 was being built, that would make things a heck of a lot easier.

The Reckoner!