A Plan for Washington Avenue Finally Moving Forward?

For as long as we can remember, traveling on Washington Avenue has been like the wild west. Cars parked in the median, commercial deliveries double parking seemingly every other block, with cars speeding through intersections in hopes of catching the light. Washington Avenue isn’t safe for drivers, pedestrians, or cyclists, and this problem has slowly worsened over time as the population on either side has grown, increasing the number of people using the street. Recently completed, currently ongoing, and upcoming mixed-use developments on the corridor will only heighten the situation.

One way to resolve some of the safety issues on Washington Avenue is to repave the street. That last happened in 2003. Lebron James was drafted that summer. Yeah, that was a looong time ago.

Speaking of a long time ago, we covered a community meeting about repaving Washington Avenue way back in 2014, at which time we indicated that a final repaving plan would be approved shortly thereafter and occur that summer. Uh, that didn’t happen. Fast forward to 2020, when we encouraged people to fill out an online/postcard survey from the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability (oTIS), as the City continued to chase that mythical level of community involvement that would give them cover to repave a street and repaint the lines on said street.

That very summer, we shared the results of the oTIS survey, indicating that the City would follow a three-lane approach on Washington Avenue, with thousands of survey responses informing the decision. At the time, we said: “We live in Philadelphia and councilmanic prerogative is very much a thing. If history is any indication, a few squeaky wheels could absolutely overrule the will of the majority for some portions or even all of Washington Avenue.” Just as we anticipated, plans shifted yet again and we were there as the “probably we hope but who knows if they’re really final” plans were presented to the public during a raucous community meeting earlier this week.

A reminder of OTIS' preferred three-lane approach from September 2020
A max capacity crowd on hand at the Christian Street YMCA
Supporters of the three-lane option holding signs

After this three-lane design was selected in 2020, some neighbors communicated that they felt they weren’t fully included in the process, especially with the pandemic limiting meetings to virtual options. So the initial recommendation was scrapped while additional outreach took place. New stakeholders were engaged, and oTIS announced new plans for a mixed-lane model, to the delight of some and the chagrin of others. Tldr, some blocks will remain five lanes, some will pinch down to four, and others will be reduced to three lanes. See below for a visual representation of what’s to come:

The new preferred approach - the mixed lane option
Diagrams show road layout for different sections
Additional input after initial "final" design
Some of the standard safety elements we'll see
Additional pedestrian safety elements to be added on a block-by-block basis
Overhead shot of mixed-lane approach
Four-lane approach includes some traffic calming elements
Yet another example of what a three-lane intersection will look like

We must say, we weren’t envious of Deputy Managing Director Mike Carroll, who had the “honor” of presenting the adjusted approach. The mood was contentious from the start, with audience members yelling throughout the presentation and arguing with fellow attendees. The exasperation around the process boiled over at the end of the presentation, with Mr. Carroll stating, “We have been talking about Washington Avenue for 10 years; it’s time to move on.” Given the nature of the meeting, we weren’t surprised to see political figures and news teams in attendance to get a feel for the public perspective.

Councilmember Johnson interviewed on the left
Councilmember Squilla talking with constituents

Our read on the situation? The City is putting the cart before the horse, like we’ve been saying since this process started all those years ago. The current road design for Washington Avenue is being planned for the Washington Avenue of 2022, not for three, five or ten years down the line. And if the last few years are any indication, Washington Avenue is going to change quite a bit in the next few years!

Frankly, the only reason the light industrial uses haven’t all given way to mixed-use is that the corridor has maintained its historic industrial zoning designation, and every mixed-use project has had to go through the zoning process in order to move forward. In case you were wondering why all the apartment buildings have appeared on the north side of Washington Avenue (west of Broad), you only need to consider the willingness of the community groups on either side to work with developers. We should note that most of the building supply businesses on Washington Avenue don’t necessarily want to be there, but they’re not moving until they are able to sell their properties for top dollar. That won’t happen without remapping.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the solution here is to remap Washington Avenue to allow mixed-use development by right. Include some overlays to require certain provisions, including affordability, parking ratios, and setbacks from existing buildings. You could even legislate community benefits into new projects of a certain size. Once you remap the corridor, the businesses will leave expeditiously and a road plan can be created that truly meets the area’s needs. If we don’t remap, the businesses will stick around. Will businesses be able to operate relatively smoothly with the new plan? How will the double parking, the eighteen wheelers and the forklifts operate on a narrower cartway? Will the street actually become safer?

We sure hope so, but we don’t know. We just hope that the planned approach is actually implemented and ends up mostly satisfying most of the stakeholders involved. What we do know is that the next steps include passing legislation for parking and loading, communicating with the community when re-paving gets underway, and monitoring the impact of the program. Based on how things have moved over the last decade, we expect the drama to continue until the paint is dry on the streets – and even after.

The Washington Avenue Connector, looking towards the river

But if you want a bit of fun news regarding Washington Ave., the Delaware Riverfront Corporation has plans to revamp the street from 4th to¬† Delaware Ave. as part of its connector streets program. Here’s to hoping that this plan doesn’t generate nearly as much controversy, and that it moves forward in less than a decade.

 

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