East Passyunk Avenue 'sneckdowns' spur talks


Jon Geeting, a writer with a trained eye on planning and public spaces, published a blog post with ThisOldCity.com on Feb. 3 that went viral.

In it, he used dozens of photos of snowy East Passyunk Avenue intersections, highlighting the way in which the diagonally designed path cuts through street grids to create spaces that could be used more strategically. More than 40,000 Facebook shares, 1,700 Tweets and 185 comments later, Geeting found himself in the middle of a social media furor that all came from his long and exacting look on the spots along the avenue that are highly eligible for improvement.

Nearly 50 residents, planners and concerned citizens filled the second floor of Adobe Café, 1919 E. Passyunk Ave., for “Streetfilms, Sneckdowns & the Pedestrian,” an event that Geeting and ThisOldCity.com founder, Geoff Kees Thompson, put together to capitalize on the momentum sparked by the post’s viral status. The two invited an esteemed panel to answer questions after the viewing of progressive planning films (courtesy of StreetFilms) and a presentation on the meaning of the post. The guest list included 1st District Councilman Mark Squilla, Community Design Collective’s Beth Miller, University City’s Prema Gupta, East Passyunk Crossing Civic Association’s David Goldfarb and the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities’ Andrew Stober.

The post, essentially, showed what a “sneckdown” is and how they help point out existing patterns of pedestrians and motorists, especially after a healthy snowfall (a “sneckdown” is a snowy neckdown). When snow and slush go undisturbed for lack of plowing or shoveling, all kinds of triangular shapes extend from angular intersection curbs, often far out into the street.

“The sneckdowns reveal the spaces that cars don’t use or need,” Geeting explained in his presentation.

In the spaces that cars don’t need along the avenue, Geeting and Thompson propose small plazas for pedestrians and neighbors to enjoy city life.

“It’s a way to get some more green space in the neighborhood: more street seating, more bike parking, and calm down the traffic,” Geeting said. “It’s good for business and it reduces the car footprint in the neighborhood.”

The good thing about these kinds of projects is that they’re not extremely expensive and sometimes relatively easy to get executed quickly and efficiently. Hot on the heels of the $500,000 East Passyunk Avenue Gateway project that’s set to break ground this year, it was recently announced that the intersection at 12th and Morris streets would receive a $300,000 facelift. A particularly wide and awkward intersection, the money from the city comes care of the Commerce Department, which is spearheading improvement and beautification efforts to strengthen East Passyunk as a commercial and residential corridor.

“It’s mostly paint, big planters, big rocks, some café tables,” Geeting noted. “They’re not really too capital intensive and easy to get these things done fairly quickly.”

Gupta, who has been successful with West Philly’s Baltimore Avenue neckdown improvements and in converting under-used space outside of 30th Street Station into what is now known as “The Porch,” said “in some cases it was really easy and people wanted more horticulture and safer intersections.”

Hinting at the mixed reactions that some neighborhoods experience in getting these efforts off the ground, she added “some people really like their parking and some people don’t want their illegal parking messed with. We’re learning about it and learning from our neighbors and learning how to redesign and think bigger and better for the future.”

Unfortunately, these things take time and money, some more than others. And as Philadelphia continues to grow and improve, the cheaper and quicker things can accomplish a great deal, but they still take time and money.

Take, for instance, the overhaul of Columbus Square Park, which will cost nearly $3 million. It’s a much bigger project and will take a great deal more fundraising and time. But looking at Geeting’s blog post and the “sneckdowns” that materialize regularly through this snowy winter, it seems pedestrian plazas and new green spaces could populate the avenue with far greater density.

Easier said than done, say some. Who’ll maintain and care for these spaces in our neighborhoods?

“People want to donate their time and do that,” Squilla said. “That’s a lot of work but I don’t see anyone getting turned away.”

There’s a lot of work that goes into these spaces even after they’re built.

“If we don’t have friends groups and really have an interest in taking care of things, it’s difficult,” he argued. “We can’t just build it if no one’s going to maintain it.”

Stober also pointed out that the City already spends thousands on street and curb maintenance, in some cases in ways they wish they wish weren’t obligatory.

“We repave our streets somewhere between every 15 and 20 years, and major arterials we try to do between 10 and 20 years,” he detailed, pointing to a “strained capital budget.” “No one ever thought one of the great civic engineering challenges of the 21st century would be federally mandated curb ramps.”

The federal order to convert sidewalk curbs to allow for greater access for handicapped individuals costs the City about $8,000 to $12,000 each to design and install.

But one thing that seems clear is the changing needs and wants of civically-minded Philadelphians. When the City piloted bike lanes on Spruce and Pine streets in Center City, there was a great deal of opposition.

Squilla, of Front Street and Snyder Avenue, reminded the audience that change, especially in South Philadelphia, takes time.

“Right now people are considering bikes on the streets part of the streets. Change doesn’t come overnight,” he said. “If the city’s going to become a better and more walkable city, we need to find alternative modes of transports: bikes, scooters, car shares or better public transport options are out there for people to not have cars.”

Of course, the age-old debate of the ease in which the City allows for drivers to park for very little and the power that car-drivers have in the debate of public space use (especially when it involves parking options) was discussed. And Stober defended the City’s low parking permit price by saying “You could wind up making life a lot more difficult for Philadelphians who really require a car and earn very little money,” and pointed toward “the person who has to drive because transit doesn’t serve them.”

Squilla concluded with a note of hope for the future. “Our city’s growing, it’s going to grow, and we’re in a good position to make it grown, and all of these things that you’re suggesting are going to help it grow,” he said. 

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at bchenevert@southphillyreview.com or ext. 117.