How to Untangle a Mile of Concrete

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A new year means the results of last year’s real estate competitions are beginning to trickle in. Of course, the finals for MIT’s annual case competition aren’t until April, and the Philadelphia Real Estate Council’s Student White Paper Competition just wrapped up its submission period. But a high-profile competition on the urban planning side has already announced its winners.

The Philadelphia Center for Architecture recently announced the results of its 2013 Ed Bacon Student Design Competition. This year’s winner is a team from Cornell University (which has a pesky habit of winning these things), with additional jury prizes going to the University of Maryland, University of Nottingham (UK), University of Tennessee, and National University of Singapore. Congratulations to Cornell’s team: Logan Axelson, Caleb Cheng, Katherine Li, Jesse Nicholson, and Travis North!

Since the competition is run by the Philadelphia Center for Architecture, each year’s challenge is, of course, focused on one of Philadelphia’s complex planning opportunities. Previous contests have focused on the I-95 corridor on the east of the city and brownfield reclamation in the city’s Gray’s Ferry area. The 2013 challenge focuses on the transportation infrastructure and neighborhood to the west of the Schuylkill river (between Spring Garden and South Street). Here’s a brief excerpt from the competition’s overview:

When transportation corridors such as highways and rail lines meet dense urban areas, choices must be made about how to balance the needs of the transportation modes and the lively city it intersects. …With international precedent for design solutions, the Center for Architecture challenges the next generation of urban thinkers to propose novel solutions to integrate Philadelphia’s major transportation corridors into its urban fabric.

And from the competition’s objective:

 Interstate 76 provides the city with one of its most heavily used entries and exits for passenger vehicles. What opportunities are there for reimagining this complex hub of transit and its integration with the entire city?

Though they are in close proximity, the densely developed neighborhood around Amtrak’s 30th St. Station is largely cut off from the Schuylkill Expressway, with an additional challenge in the form of an enormous train yard adjacent to the station. Ultimately, it seems, the city’s transportation infrastructure presents one of the larger stumbling blocks for downtown growth. The challenge amounts to a whole lot of concrete tangled up in a very small area.

That’s quite a challenge, and all of the competition’s participants deserve credit for their solutions.

Cornell’s winning plan is called “SHIFT” (Smart Hub Infrastructure For Tomorrow–I’d give them first prize for their acronym alone). They propose some changes that would make an average Philadelphian gasp. If you look at their plan (PDF) you’ll see that Interstate 76–one of the most important highways in the region–is gone, and that cumbersome set of train tracks has been rerouted to pass a few blocks away from the river rather than running parallel.

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I wouldn’t make a very good urban planner. I’m not sure what I’m having for dinner tonight, let alone what the land use, infrastructure and economic characteristics of a neighborhood will be in 60 years.

But the Cornell team’s vision for the west side of the Schuylkill does exactly that, dividing the process of its development into 20-year phases. For me, the most notable components of their plan involve diversification and sustainability. The designers point out,

The site is currently integral to Philadelphia’s transportation network, yet serves few other purposes. The recent additions such as the Cira Centre and Penn Park point the way t0 a mixed-use future.

Taking its cue from such properties as Brandywine Realty Trust’s (NYSE: BDN) Cira Centre, this plan aims to increase the inventory of retail, office, and residential real estate (including affordable housing). Obviously, this entails building upward.

Likewise, the plan involves a number of sustainability details, such as stormwater and rain-capture systems, greater amounts of green space, and non-car transportation options.  Best of all, a series of ecological changes on the riverbank will help cleanse the Schuylkill river of pollutants.

Pollutants? In the Schuylkill?!

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