Take a walk to the Delaware River waterfront today at the edge of Philadelphia’s historic district. The eight lanes of I-95 run alongside it but are depressed below grade. Three-and-a-half blocks of it are under a landscaped cover. The original colonial streets, Chestnut, Walnut, Spruce, Dock and Delancey, are now on top of that cover. Street-level connections between the historic city and its new riverfront development are preserved. The citizens changed the plan for I-95. They had beaten the bureaucrats. This report tells that story. The original embankment plan was created mainly by three levels of governmental highway engineers and Edmund G. Bacon, Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, had become its chief advocate. In doing so, he had changed from the hero of Society Hill redevelopment into the villain who sought to block the city from its waterfront.
The idea of having a national network of superhighways arose in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration. It was inspired in part by President Eisenhower’s admiration of the autobahn system in Germany, which started in the early 1930s. It had military implications in that it enabled troops and supplies to be transported more easily and quickly from place to place. Because of the national aspect of the U.S. plan, it was decided that the federal government would provide 90% of the funding, a decision which made state highway departments very happy and assured their cooperation. The idea developed into the interstate highway system our country now enjoys, or – in some places – does not enjoy.
As planning and construction proceeded a problem slowly emerged. Highways are designed by highway engineers, and highway engineers think almost exclusively in terms of efficiency, structure, safety and cost, all for the purpose of enhancing the movement of motor vehicles. They are not well versed in matters of urban design, city planning and related sociological and architectural issues. As a result, when the interstate superhighways began to arrive in cities, they created all kinds of problems as a result of bad planning. A sad early example can be found in Hartford, Connecticut, where Interstate 84 was allowed in effect to sever key parts of the city from each other.
One of the most important of the new superhighways was, and still is, Interstate 95, which links all the eastern seaboard states from Maine to Florida. It has occasionally been called the Main Street of the east coast, even though it has no Main Street features at all. The master plan called for this highway to come right through Philadelphia. But where, on what path?
The key actors as the planning progressed were, most importantly, the planning staff of the Pennsylvania Highway Department (now part of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation) and City Planning Commission’s Director Edmund Bacon. The Philadelphia Streets Department was also involved, but it was inclined to defer to the state authority in Harrisburg for projects of this magnitude. The federal Bureau of Public Roads (now part of the federal Department of Transportation) would have to approve the plan, but that came later in the process. Various plans emerged, all more or less placing the highway at the eastern edge of the city along the Delaware River for its long journey through the city. The planning became more difficult as the highway approached the center of the city, the area containing the historic district, principal businesses and major cultural activities. For Center City, consideration was given to using (i) the space of Delaware Avenue (now Columbus Boulevard), (ii) the space between Delaware Avenue and Front Street and (iii) even the space of Second Street plus space taken from the blocks on one or both sides of that street. Sometime in 1964 the second plan was chosen – between Delaware Avenue and Front Street. The planners saw two advantages in this choice. It would preserve Delaware Avenue for local traffic. It would also use federal money for the demolition of warehouses and other unsightly or unused buildings in that space. However, it would also destroy many historic houses, especially to the north in Northern Liberties and to the south in Queen Village, but they were deemed much too unimportant compared with the importance of the superhighway. (Do I hear Charles Peterson protesting loudly?)
Another key decision was made. In this Center City part of the project the superhighway would be raised above grade, on a high embankment. This decision was to have many repercussions, as the reader will learn.
Highway engineers and planners, in the early 1960s before the environmental movement arose in the latter part of that decade, were not inclined to share their planning deliberations with citizens, who were, however, their ultimate clients. The environmental impact statement had not yet been invented. The engineers and planners were confident that they were making correct decisions in a complicated and esoteric field of expertise. They had the full power of federal, state and local governments behind them, including the power of eminent domain. The role of the citizenry was not to second-guess the experts, but was instead to praise them for providing better roads and superhighways for the populace. As a result of this attitude the residents of Society Hill, adjoining areas and the larger city were slow to learn what the Pennsylvania Highway Department and the City Planning Commission had in store for them.
Some blame must also be attributed to the citizenry. The degree of interest manifested by people in neighborhoods tends to be directly proportional to their closeness to the highway project. The closer they are, the stronger their motivation to find out what is going to happen and perhaps to protest. In its Center City section, the highway was not going to pass directly through residential areas, except at the fringes of Society Hill, and Northern Liberties to the north and Queen Village to the south. In 1964, a few news articles described aspects of the official plan. Those two neighborhoods should have been the first to protest. However, at that time they were thinly populated and most of the residents lacked the resources and the interest to conduct a major campaign.
Society Hill did have the resources and should have had the interest, even though the highway was not going to go through its houses. However, its leadership was distracted by the effort to merge its two civic associations. Among the general citizenry of Society Hill there was a certain apathy. We had all heard the saying, “You can’t fight City Hall.” I happen to believe that you can fight City Hall. It is filled with politicians, and most politicians pay some attention to complaining constituents, at least sometimes. On the other hand, the highway bureaucracy is made up of experts in highway planning, and we all deferred to their professionalism. We all believed that truly, “You can’t fight the Highway Department.”
Another possible source of protest might have been those Philadelphia city officials responsible for the development of Penn’s Landing, a project to replace the rotting piers along the Delaware River with an exciting new waterfront and adjoining compatible uses. The highway plan would put I-95 and its 20-foot high embankment right across Delaware Avenue from Penn’s Landing. I was led to understand that the officials concerned with this project were told that any other type of treatment was not feasible, and thus they had learned to live with the fact that their development would be on the river side of an imposing barrier between it and Center City.
As 1964 progressed, the community began to wake up. More news seeped out and more rumors circulated. People began to refer to the highway as the “Delaware Expressway,” as I will now do. The press began to take greater interest in its design. In the fall of 1964, the state Highway Department, presumably working with Ed Bacon, took the very unusual step of building an elaborate model of the Center City section. The model also revealed the design of the intersection of the Delaware Expressway with the easternmost section of the Crosstown Expressway, which was to go east-west replacing the existing South Street, but was to be much wider. The model was first put on display in the late fall of 1964 in the John Wanamaker department store (now Macy’s).
One of those who viewed this model was Frank Weise, a local independent architect. He had been employed by Van Arkel & Moss, the developers of Head House Square, to design that residential and commercial project in Society Hill running on either side of 2nd Street between Pine & Lombard. His study of the Delaware Expressway model alarmed him, not so much as to the Head House Square project, but rather as to the general effect of the Expressway upon Center City as a whole, especially its connection with the river. These concerns caused him to become an active participant in the controversy. He gathered a number of other architects, none of whom had a project in Society Hill, to protest the official design and to seek an alternative design. They named themselves the Philadelphia Architects Committee and could be fairly described as a group of independent architects plus younger associates of larger firms. Weise and others went to some of the more prestigious architects in the city in an attempt to interest them in seeking a change in design but were rebuffed at this early stage of the protest.
They then decided to do a complete study themselves, in an attempt to find the optimum solution. They considered placing the expressway: (i) on a very high elevated structure, (ii) at grade or (iii) depressed with a cover. They finally picked the last alternative. The area they chose to cover represented a projection of the original streets of the city to the Delaware River to be tied directly into Penn’s Landing, thereby combining all the historical, commercial, residential, recreational and other uses of the main part of the city. The six-block length was determined to be the maximum feasible cover between the interchanges with the proposed Crosstown and Vine Street Expressways, the latter to be along what was considered to be the northern edge of Center City, close to Arch Street.
Meanwhile, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and particularly reporter C. Allen Keith, apparently alerted by the Head House Square developers, began to take note of the problem. In occasional news articles during the late fall of 1964 there were descriptions of the official design and mention of the fact that Weise’s committee was beginning its study. These articles were concentrated almost entirely upon opposition to the expressway by Society Hill residents and developers.
Before Bacon’s model was made public, Society Hill resident Lynne Roberts also had become concerned and went down to the end of Delancey Street with Ted Newbold and Bill Eiman, President of the Home Owners and Residents Association (HORA), to look out toward the Delaware River and imagine what the height of the raised highway would be, compared to that of the hulking Quaker City Storage Company building on the waterfront. They assured her it would be fine, and she vehemently disagreed. She and neighbor Jan Mears, who knew of the model from Al Richman, Inc. where she worked, contacted another neighbor, Head House developer Urban Moss. Between them they were able to get access to the model, and on seeing it, came away horrified. They tried to convince the leaders of the two civic associations to play a more active role in the growing controversy. The two presidents, who were deeply involved in the merger talks, begged off. The two ladies were persistent, and finally persuaded Bill Eiman to call a mass town meeting, and to have a representative of the State Highway Department describe the plan. The Highway Department was willing to send a speaker to such a meeting and to have him bring the model. The meeting was held on the evening of December 1, 1964, at the head office of the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company, overlooking Independence Square.
Lambert T. Van Eerden, a chief engineer of the Highway Department, described the official plan. He was accompanied by Edmund Bacon, who, much to the surprise of many, defended the proposal. His commission had approved the official plan, but that fact was not widely known. Both Van Eerden and Bacon were obviously very proud of the plan and the model, and in some ways justifiably so. Their new design supported the elevated highway with a large grassy embankment rather than with the ugly steel or concrete stilts of an earlier plan. They pointed out that because Front Street is higher than Delaware Avenue, the embankment wouldn’t seem very high. Much more important, however, was the fact that the embankment cut the adjoining historic area completely off from the riverfront, except for two long and narrow tunnels which traced the paths of two colonial streets, Spruce and Dock.
Among those in the packed audience was William L. Rafsky, executive director of the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation (OPDC). He spoke up to declare that he and OPDC were concerned about the plan. Although OPDC had approved the plan originally, it was now questioning it.
Also in the audience was Martha Schober, who was seeing the model for the first time. She was about to become one of the key leaders in the fight against the official plan, and I will describe her in detail shortly.
The listeners were reasonably polite but asked a number of rather sharp questions. As the meeting neared its end, Philadelphia patrician C. Jared Ingersoll, stood up to his full impressive height and said with great emphasis to Bacon: “…perhaps because we were all asleep and didn’t understand this thing, I don’t see that this is any argument, whatsoever, on not changing it, if it can be reasonably changed.” [Transcript of meeting proceedings, p. 55, author’s collection] He went on to offer a resolution to press the city, state and federal governments to re-study the plan and find a better one. It passed unanimously.
Where was I in all of this gathering storm? I was otherwise involved. In the spring of 1964 and indeed through all the years discussed in this report, I was practicing law full time. I was also deeply involved in the legal/political dispute which was dubbed “the Genevieve Blatt absentee ballot fight.” In May, I proposed marriage to Libby Sturges, and she accepted – great joy! Through the summer the absentee ballot fight was still taking up time until late August, when I resigned in order to help with wedding preparations. We were married on September 12 in Chestnut Hill and then left for a month’s honeymoon in Europe. We then moved into and furnished our apartment in Society Hill Towers, as the 12th tenants in that new addition to the neighborhood. I was asked to help with the legal aspects of the merger of the two Society Hill civic associations. With all these things happening in my life, I was blissfully unaware of the Expressway and its increasingly controversial design.
Libby and I decided to attend the above-described town meeting, mainly out of curiosity. We were shocked by the Expressway’s design and excited by Mr. Ingersoll’s throwing down the gauntlet. As groups of neighbors – including Libby and me -- walked home from the meeting, we all wondered how our little community could wage the fight and who was going to do it. The task seemed impossible -- taking on the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and Streets Department, the Pennsylvania Department of Highways and the Federal Bureau of Roads in Washington -- about as entrenched a combination of bureaucracies as one could imagine. Going back again to the old saying, “You can’t fight City Hall” and my new saying, “You can’t fight the Highway Department,” how could we fight the powerful City-State-Federal monolith and win? Citizen groups do not design highways. Moreover, behind the highway bureaucrats were the vast constituencies of the automobile, trucking, steel, rubber, concrete, oil and other related industries. How does one even begin to defeat such power, especially when those in charge considered it a done deal?
To a certain extent battle lines were drawn at this meeting. It was everyone's hope that William Rafsky, working mainly through Sen. Joseph Clark's office, could do something about the highway. Perhaps some modification such as lowering this section of the expressway at its southern end as it passes near Society Hill could be achieved. The radical, below-grade solution was not discussed at that meeting since the Philadelphia Architects Committee was working entirely separately and was relatively unknown. Frank Weise was at the meeting but did not take part in audience discussion.
I was merely a member of the audience at this meeting. I was enthralled by the discussion but felt that I would never take an active part in the fight. HORA did then appoint Peter A. Zambelli, a public relations man with the Insurance Company of North America, to be a chairman of a Delaware Expressway committee and to act as liaison with Sen. Clark's office and OPDC in seeing what could be done among the members of HORA. What I did not know was that I would soon be asked to play a major role in the effort.