John Gibbons / AIA Urban Design Committee

John Gibbons / AIA Urban Design Committee
Dilworth Plaza
Philadelphia, PA
Key issues in reconfiguration of the plaza include:
1. How much, if any, of the existing configuration and materials of Dilworth Plaza
should be retained and modified, as opposed to being entirely demolished? A
sustainable approach to urban design and planning suggests that the existing plaza
should be evaluated, and if appropriate, repaired and reconfigured to reflect
current concerns, rather than be demolished and replaced, particularly where, as in
the case of Dilworth Plaza, the materials are of a high quality.
2. To what extent should Dilworth Plaza function as an inward looking, enclosed
space, as opposed to an outward looking space that embraces and addresses the
abutting public environment? Abutting public spaces include Kennedy Boulevard,
15th Street, Market Street and S. Penn Square, as well as the Clothes Pin,
Municipal Services Building, and the Parkway. Dilworth Plaza is in effect a
forecourt to City Hall, and should open up to the surrounding environment, much
as Trafalgar Square functions as a forecourt to the National Gallery in London.
Wide sidewalks should be continuous around the plaza on all street sides, such as
at Copley Plaza in Boston, to open up the plaza to the street
3. How should the plaza design respond to pedestrian circulation, both to the Market
Street portal of City Hall, and to the concourse level transit system? How can it
best create an attractive environment for both above-ground pedestrians, and
transit concourse users?
4. How can the design of the plaza encourage people to stop and use the space as a
place of relaxation, or a lunch destination, such as Love Park, rather than just as a
pedestrian circulation route to somewhere else?
5. How can the plaza be elements designed to be both attractive, and easy to
The first issue suggests that each element of the existing plaza be evaluated
independently. The southern portion of the plaza, south of Market Street, is clearly the
most forlorn area of Dilworth plaza. In total shade most of the year, the ominous
presence of the dark glass tower of the Residences at the Ritz Carlton to the south, looms
over the mostly hard paved multi-leveled plaza. Dense, closely spaced overgrown trees
along both the City Hall side and 15th Street side of the area block views of City Hall, and
add to the sense of dank decay and desolation. Oddly configured sunken sitting areas
attract only the homeless. The fountain with its display of dyed colored water does little
to enhance the above-ground space, or the dank concourse area below. A raised curb,
poorly maintained trash-strewn planting strip, and railing, and lack of sidewalk deny
access to 15th Street. There is nothing to suggest that any element of this section of the
plaza is worth retaining.
Elements of the new CCD proposal calling for elimination of the multiple changes in
level, fountain, and hard paved surfaces of this area, and replacement with a largely open
lawn area, would be a significant improvement over the existing configuration. Even
though the lawn will be in shade most of the year, it can provide a welcome relief from
the surrounding hard paved areas and a potentially attractive summer lunchtime
destination. However, as presently designed, the rectangular lawn area, without through
pathways, ignores the natural diagonal desire line of pedestrians walking from South
Broad Street to west Market Street, and from 15th Street to east Market Street, and the
proposed allees of trees, as well as the heroic-scale glazed headhouses, isolate the plaza
from the surrounding streets. The location of the opening from the existing foundation
marks an important intersection in the concourse system below. A skylight at this
location could perhaps provide a sense of orientation in the concourse below.
The second section of Dilworth Plaza is the eastward extension of Market Street. In
comparison to the south section, it is a simple landscaped plaza, paved in high quality
granite that continues the visual axis of Market Street to the City Hall Market Street
portal. However, the effectiveness of the axial promenade is marred by the interruption
of the balustrade surrounding the circular opening to the concourse below, on the axis of
Market Street. The main level of the plaza is several steps above the 15th Street sidewalk,
and the handicap accessible ramps are awkward, narrow, and hidden behind granite
walls. However, it would appear that with some configuration and modification, this
section of the plaza could be significantly improved, without complete demolition. The
access stairs to the concourse with the circular opening duplicate those with the plaza to
the north, and the space below is not attractive. Closing the opening and continuing the
paving across the former opening to reinforce the Market Street axis and welcoming view
to City Hall. Reconfiguring the handicap access ramps so that they are an integral part of
the design, could significantly improve the area at a relatively modest cost.
The third northern section of the existing plaza, the large oval sunken plaza and arcade
north of Market Street is a strong urban design statement, and is in many ways the most
successful area of Dilworth Plaza. With the open axial vista to the entrance to Municipal
Services Building, and its gold city seal, the plaza links the Municipal Services Building
with City Hall, as part of an integrated city government complex. It is one of the
memorable views of Center City. Unlike the southern portion of Dilworth Plaza, the
sunken plaza is bathed in sunlight most of the year and with modest redesign and
maintenance could potentially be an attractive space. The plaza still provides one of the
few relatively pleasurable routes from the city street system to the regional rail and transit
system. Artwork and carefully located advertising parcels could enliven the blank white
lavatory brick walls of the concourse level arcade and the link under 15th Street to Penn
Center. The weakest past of the northern section is the desolate concrete paved area
adjacent the northwest corner of City Hall, and the desolate frontage along 15th Street,
where the high raised curb wall and planters, lack of sidewalk, and dense tree growth
isolate the plaza from 15th Street. The paved area adjacent the northeast corner of City
Hall could be an appropriate location for an attractive café structure, similar in view to
Café Cret, that would provide an amenity, without impacting the axial vista to the
Municipal Services Building and the symbolic relationship of MSB and City Hall
The proposed CCD plan obliterates the open concourse level plaza, an compromises the
axial or symbolic link between Municipal Services Building and City Hall. The view of
the entrance to Municipal Services Building and the City of Philadelphia seal is at least
partially blocked by a café structure and tree plantings along Kennedy Boulevard. The
sunken plaza is replaced by a shallow reflecting pool that may be a visual amenity in the
summer, and an attraction for kids in the summer heat, but may provide little amenity the
remainder of the year.
Perhaps the most questionable aspect of the CCD proposal are the heroic scale glazed
headhouses, apparently over 25’ high and 100 plus feet long that line 15th Street either
side of the Market Street axis. The headhouses attempt to bring light to the concourse, in
place of the sunken plaza, but the headhouses create significant physical barrier between
15th Street and Dilworth Plaza, and would significantly screen views of City Hall from
15th Street. As exemplified by the the recently constructed glazed headhouse across 15th
Street, such structures while perhaps attractive in a rendering, in a tough public urban
environment can quickly deteriorate into a vandalized pigeon infested eyesore that is a
blight on the environment.
Dilworth Plaza needs major work to make it an attractive destination, an effective
forecourt to City Hall, and pleasurable transit access experience. The fundamental
question is whether complete reconstruction of the plaza, at a cost of $40-50m, to a
design that currently includes many questionable features is appropriate in a city and
nation with a rapidly deteriorating economy. Perhaps a more reasonable approach would
be incremental approach that initially addresses the worst section of the plaza, the
southern section, to create an attractive green lawn area, with sidewalks along 15th Street
that can become a destination in its on right, open up views of City Hall from 15th Street,
and create a visual amenity for surrounding high-rise residents and office workers. More
subtle interventions could be proposed for the other sections of the plaza.