The Municipal Services Building (MSB) covers roughly 2/3 of the square block that’s just to the northwest of City Hall, offering locals a one stop shop of bureaucratic hoops through which to jump. For example, you can pay your water bill at MSB, or grab a building permit, or apply to close your street for a block party, and depending on what you need to do, you might find yourself spending quite some time in the building’s basement. Unfortunately for City employees that work there and the lucky citizens that visit, MSB is surrounded by one of the worst public spaces in Philadelphia, Thomas Paine Plaza.
Thomas Paine Plaza (called TPP by absolutely nobody) covers the space in front of and to the east of the Municipal Services Building, offering staggeringly little public benefit despite its large size and central location. From the south, it’s elevated a few short steps above the sidewalk. But from every other direction, it’s at least ten steps up from grade. This isn’t exactly what we’d call pedestrian friendly. Once you get up to the plaza though, it’s somehow worse. If you like trees, this isn’t the place for you. It’s a sea of granite, only interrupted by some public art and a few supersized game board pieces whose paint jobs have slowly faded and chipped over the years.
This summer, the awfulness of Thomas Paine Plaza is considerably mitigated by Farm for the City, an oasis among the hardscape from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Farm for the City is quite literally an urban farm right in the middle of Center City, growing various vegetables ranging from chard to collards to various herbs. Not only does it add a wonderful green element to an otherwise dreary location, it also activates the space with tons of programming. Educational events include “Playing Dirty,” which is a session all about dirt, “The Plot Thickens,” a community reading series, and “Flower Power,” which covers topics relating to growing flowers. There are many more events and you can find the full calendar here:
Another aspect of the project relates to the bounty created by the farm itself. According to PHS, Farm for the City will result in roughly 1,000 pounds of produce, when all is said and done. The harvest will be donated to a program that serves the homeless, Broad Street Ministry’s Hospitality Collaborative. Beautification, education, and public service are collectively wrapped up in this project, making it a big winner as far as we’re concerned.
If only Thomas Paine Plaza could move permanently into the winning column. In recent years, Dilworth Plaza and LOVE Park have both undergone significant renovation projects, and we’d argue that TPP should be next on the list. Fortunately, the Planning Commission agrees that this space needs major work, calling for its renovation in the Central District Plan. Of course, there’s the small matter of finding the funds to make it happen, which could take some time. We have to assume that it will be at least a couple years before anything breaks ground here, and we sure hope that Farm for the City comes back every summer until that day arrives.