The saga of Washington Avenue is almost as messy as the street itself. A mix of industry, commerce, parks and rowhomes, the South Philly thoroughfare is a notoriously dicey commute full of illegally parked cars, vanishing bike lanes, and trucks that unload in the middle of the street.
These conditions add up to more than just a nuisance. All the mayhem of Washington’s two miles and 29 intersections makes it a dangerous place for any traveler, cyclist or otherwise. Combined data from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Philadelphia Police Department shows an average of 327 crashes per year along Washington over the past five years.
“People realize Washington Avenue needs some fixing,” says Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district covers the corridor east of Broad Street. Fixing it, though, requires a tightrope balancing act across half a dozen neighborhoods, two City Council districts, and a staggeringly diverse group of businesses, residents and commuters — each of whom use the corridor in vastly different ways. Any plan for a redesign would need to bring all of these interests to the table.
“You have to take into account all parties,” says Jasmine Sadat, district planner for the office of Kenyatta Johnson, the city councilmember representing the avenue’s western side. “How do you reach a compromise that doesn’t segregate each mode of transportation?”
The Philadelphia City Planning Commission aimed for such a compromise in 2013 and 2014, when it held a series of community meetings to discuss the results of a traffic study of Washington Avenue. The goal was to reach a consensus about how to rein in the chaos of the street and implement a new design that would satisfy all users. Eventually, this would have taken the form of fewer traffic lanes, diagonal parking spots and other design changes.
It didn’t work. The Commission’s recommendations were met with resistance, largely from local business owners. Johnson and Squilla backed off. City Council, to whom it fell to authorize any lane changes, failed to do so, and the campaign fell by the wayside.
“I think what happened in the last process was that a lot of people felt like it was a done deal when it was presented to them,” Squilla says. “Therefore, they thought they had no input whatsoever.”
“I don’t bike, but I can’t say I absolutely don’t want a bike lane because it doesn’t benefit me.”
Now, the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU) has reignited the push for a Washington Avenue redesign. Cycling advocates got on board. In July, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia started the Safer Washington Avenue campaign, gathering 336 signatures urging City Council to make the street a priority. A September community meeting, hosted by MOTU and the Streets Department, asked about 200 attendees to make their own suggestions for how the street should be improved.
This marked a departure from the last go-around, in that it solicited feedback from the public even before the City put forward any recommendations. Given this more democratic approach to tackling the problem, will a compromise be met that can move Washington Avenue into a safer future, or will negotiations fizzle as they have in the past? And after all is said and done, how big of an influence will cyclists have on the conversation?
Few would argue that the corridor is not due for an overhaul. As Thomas Donatucci, president of the Washington Avenue Property Owners Association (WAPOA), told PlanPhilly in March, “This situation stinks right now. It stinks for business, it stinks for commuters, it stinks for pedestrians and it stinks for bicyclists.”
Where the debate fell apart is how, exactly, to go about making the changes to improve Washington. The Planning Commission’s recommendations included adding back-in angled parking to maximize the number of spaces and leave more room for loading zones. It also proposed reducing the number of car lanes from five to three along certain stretches of the avenue, in an effort to reduce traffic and discourage dangerous passing maneuvers.
Ultimately, groups like WAPOA and the United Merchants of the South 9th Street Businessmen’s Association shot this proposal down, arguing that it failed to address core problems on the street. “They really didn’t look at the true way Washington Avenue is used,” says Michele Gambino, business manager for United Merchants.
A big blind spot in the Planning Commission’s study, according to Gambino, was how to keep changes from impeding the operations of businesses like those in the Italian Market. With no back-alley loading zones serving this stretch of 9th Street, merchants in the market must do their loading along Washington, as they have for years.
Times change, however, and Washington Avenue has not elided the continuous evolution of South Philly in general. Merchants still hawk everything from produce to kitchenware to wholesale clothing in and around the Italian Market, while warehouses and supply depots still dominate the west side of the avenue. Meanwhile, younger people have flocked to the area for years in search of cheap rent, leading to an increased concern over quality-of-life issues — issues like street safety. As Holly Otterbein wrote in an August Philadelphia magazine story, the debate over Washington is in many ways a fight over the corridor’s “inimitable character.”
This isn’t to say that the businesses that sustained Washington Avenue’s economy for years need to go away in order to make the street safer. Still, it’s difficult to accommodate the wide range of parties that travel or do business here. Any alteration to the street will affect many different ways of life, and in such cases change never comes quickly or easily.
‘This is going to take forever’
Washington Avenue’s competing interests had the chance to get together again on September 3, at MOTU’s public meeting. Packed to the point where several dozen people had to stand, attendees crowded around tables and demonstrated on paper what they would like to see happen on Washington. While each table managed to work out its ideas civilly, a survey of the room revealed vastly different visions for what is even possible on the ground.
“This is an issue where it’s going to be impossible to have consensus,” said Rory Scerri, owner of Ampere Capital Group, a contracting business on Washington.
“From nine to five I’m a contractor, but at night I ride my bike all over the city,” said Scerri, who moved to Philadelphia from California and looks more like a craft beer brewer than a South Philly contractor. Still, he wasn’t too confident in the City’s ability to reconcile his needs as a business owner with his needs as a cyclist.
“This,” he said, gesturing toward the cacophonous room, “is going to take forever.”
Johnny Seng, who lives on the avenue and whose mother owns a laundromat at 18th and Washington, takes a more optimistic view.
“Everyone’s going to want what is in their best interest, as a resident, as a biker, as a business owner,” he said. “But with the neighborhood changing so quickly over the past five years, it’s come to a point where we’ve got to make some changes.” To Seng, that means trying to understand the needs of other users on the street.
“It can’t be completely one-sided,” he added. “I don’t bike, but I can’t say I absolutely don’t want a bike lane because it doesn’t benefit me. There are people that need it.”
A Common Concern
One aspect of the debate that appeals to all stakeholders is safety. The meeting’s closest moment to consensus came when one attendee mentioned children who must cross Washington to get to school each day. As the conversation around the avenue picks up again, the Bicycle Coalition has made sure to keep safety as its central talking point.
“Safety needs to trump everything,” says Bob Previdi, policy coordinator for the Bicycle Coalition. “You want to give everyone a chance to participate [in committee], and that’s fair, but you can’t let that process take over and delay safety improvements.”
Donatucci, the WAPOA president, says that only attempting to fix the parking problem ignores the larger issue of how to make Washington a safer and more livable street. He sees rezoning the avenue from industrial to mixed-use as both an inevitable and a positive change.
“There’s a lot of hands in the mix, but we’re not all that far apart,” Donatucci says, adding that he hopes a shared concern for safety will help bring the many parties to some sort of agreement this time around.
“Drivers are cyclists, cyclists are drivers, we’re all pedestrians.”
However the City ultimately goes about taming traffic on Washington Avenue depends partly on what the Streets Department has the power, and the budget, to do. (In November, it finally got around to repainting the avenue’s fading edge lines and restoring its bike lanes.) But perhaps more important is what the diverse community groups can agree on.
“Drivers are cyclists, cyclists are drivers, we’re all pedestrians,” Previdi says.
Back at the September meeting, Gwen Lee, a local resident who described herself as “new to the debate,” watched quietly as her table hammered out a vision for Washington Avenue. While cautious about moving forward, Lee said she appreciated that the conversation was happening.
“Change is always good,” she said. “And that’s the only way you get change — to be optimistic.” ◆
SPOKE editors Alex Vuocolo and Matt Bevilacqua contributed to this report.