A busy transit hub entrance in an underpass on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia receives a dramatic and illuminating makeover courtesy of NV5, Cloud Gehshan and The Lighting Practice.
The Spring Garden Street underpass sits under I-95, the Delaware Expressway and the SEPTA commuter train lines that connect the city center and North Philadelphia. That long underpass was notoriously dimly lit, dingy, depressing and despite hundreds of thousands of people passing through the space monthly—it didn’t feel safe.
The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC) had been taking a local leadership role in the Philadelphia communities with the goal of reestablishing connections to the river for years, which had been broken by highways and industry in various ways. The nonprofit corporation was organized for the benefit of Philadelphia residents and visitors, acting as a steward of the Delaware River waterfront. According to their website, “The fundamental purpose of DRWC is to design, develop and manage the central Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia between Oregon and Allegheny Avenues. DRWC intends to transform the central Delaware River waterfront into a vibrant destination for recreational, cultural and commercial activities for the residents and visitors of Philadelphia.”
DRWC had recently completed improvements to other connector streets, which had spurred growth and development in those neighborhoods and led to the identification of Spring Garden Street as the next key connector. The Spring Garden Connector was special for two reasons: it is the only street in the city that has a clear view of and access to the river and its location is adjacent to several trendy, well-traveled neighborhoods.
“The highway acts as a big barricade, cutting off those neighborhoods from the river, so remaking those connections is really important,” remarks Barbara Schwarzenbach, principal at Cloud Gehshan (CG) in Philadelphia. The project to reinvigorate the Spring Garden Connector was a critical component in the DRWC plan to increase walkability and safety between neighborhoods and the riverfront.
The Spring Garden Greenway project had recently completed the concept-planning phase and was poised to transform four-miles of Spring Garden into the greenest street in Philadelphia with median plantings, planted bump-outs, trees and pocket parks, improving the links between the Schuylkill River Trail, the Delaware River Trail and the East Coast Greenway along the Delaware Riverfront.
The Spring Garden Connector project was influenced by the planning work of the Spring Garden Greenway, but the two projects have different teams and different missions, notably because the underpass installation is site specific. “This is a one-of-a-kind project, different from the Greenway and other DRWC connectors. It’s important to remember these portals are really stairs to a train station where many commuters enter and exit daily,” comments CG Design Principal Jerome Cloud, FSEGD.
The project came with a complex stakeholder group, that included: DRWC, Northern Liberties Neighbors Association (NLNA), Philadelphia Arts Commission, City Streets Department, PennDot and SEPTA, the local transit agency—all of whom were in favor of the improving the underpass, but it would be up to the design team to determine how to overcome the current condition of the space.
NLNA and DRWC hosted community engagement meetings that opened a discourse about how public art and streetscape improvements might create a visible link to the waterfront and enhance the heavily used public transit hub. “NLNA saw the Spring Garden Connector as one of their ‘front doors,’ making it feel safer in this up-and-coming neighborhood was important to them,” says Schwarzenbach.
Topping the group’s list of goals for the space was improving the level of illumination in the underpass. They also wanted a lively, artful and changing atmosphere in which the transit portals were clearly identified and the bus stop experience was enhanced. Improvements needed to be easy to physically remove, clean and repair, in addition to being weather and vandal resistant. Their action plan also included new sidewalks, curbing, lane adjustments, additional ambient lighting and a bicycle-sharing hub. The William Penn Foundation supported the idea from the beginning, and provided the project funding.
Lighting the Way
The CG team had recently completed a trail system along the waterfront consisting of interpretive signage, directional and wayfinding systems. NV5, the firm leading the Spring Garden Connector work invited the CG team to collaborate on the project to see what they could do to help connect the neighborhood to the river. Initially, the scope for the experiential graphic design team was to develop signage, but the larger group came to the realization that the underpass would be better served by environmental elements with illumination, so CG’s scope was modified to a lead role in the conceptualization with support from The Lighting Practice.
The design team presented concepts at community engagement meetings and responded to participant’s suggestions, drawing the plan for place-specific themed lighting as the primary enhancement from input out of those meetings. They developed the concepts further in partnership with SEPTA, PennDoT and the City, ensuring transit operations would not be impacted by either streetscape improvements or lighting installations.
The project had presented a unique challenge because there weren’t any examples of ‘best practices’ or precedents to cite the clients to illustrate the effectiveness of the solution—it would take a bit of a leap of faith on their part. “The client gave us a substantial free hand; people were excited to see something dramatic happen here. Everyone involved was of the same mind that the solution needed to have impact to counteract the existing conditions,” remembers Cloud.
There were a host of discussions as the design team began to identify what solutions could look like. In the CG office there was a desire to bring in a green motif and soften the geometric structures of the underpass’ architecture. Schwarzenbach dove into research, discovering an early genus of “Wild Wisteria”—a flowering plant indigenous to the area—that existed in the 1700s. The plant directly contributed to the logic employed in naming the area “Spring Garden.” It was exactly what the design team was hoping to find—something relevant and organic—to draw into the system architecture they were contemplating for the space.
A Pattern of Illumination
The design team fully embraced the theme, producing a Wisteria pattern, which adorns the brightly lit transit portals and ceiling suspended lighting features. As one approaches the underpass, large letterforms over the portals spell out “Spring Garden” as colorful lighting gently pulses through the leafy portal screens, drawing the gaze inward and through. “The light leads you through, it’s animated, sequential and very effective,” muses Schwarzenbach.
A series of Wisteria-festooned, 1.5-foot-deep by 13-foot-high by 50-foot-long, perforated aluminum panels form the portals in the center of the underpass, framing the doorways to the SEPTA elevated train station. These eye-catching portals were specially designed to float in front of the existing entrances, illuminating the arrival and departure experience for commuters.
The aluminum panel system was designed to be difficult to bend by hand, yet easily formed. The perforation had to be the right size to prevent detritus from accumulating and not allow for fingers to get stuck. The entire thing also was designed to be removable and easy to power wash—even graffiti resistant.
Additional suspended light fixtures—lighter and more cloud-like in form—incorporate the same Wisteria pattern. These “clouds” have been placed at regular intervals along both sides of the underpass, casting ornate illumination onto the walls and sidewalks running in both directions. The cloudscape and ceiling suspended elements, including lights that illuminate the center columns, were another way to think about the East-West connection from the neighborhood to the river and back.
Concealed, programmable LED lights animate the portals, hanging light features with continuous color changes. The center columns are washed with a luminous blue light. The suspended features are programmed to move in the direction of traffic, sweeping the length of the underpass. The illumination at the entrance portals is programmed to move both horizontally, in concert with the ceiling-suspended elements, as well as vertically to coincide with pedestrian movement in and out of the train station.
Chromatically, the clients wanted big energy for the opening, which coincided with the 2016 holiday season. “We sought to bring up the energy—pump up the lumens—to almost over-compensate for the dark, dingy conditions of the underpass,” explains Cloud. The design team did studies for morning, afternoon and evening color patterns to create variation in the experience.
The solution, while completely supported by the client team, was not without its implementation hurdles. More light fixtures than expected were necessary to light the entire underpass and several elements had to be rearranged to arrive at the desired effect.
“The fabricator, Urban Sign, created many prototypes in their shop, performing light experiments to get the projection right,” chuckles Cloud. However, some elements still required finessing in the field. “The most difficult part was getting the lights projecting through the suspended celling fixtures to project the wisteria pattern onto the wall properly. It took a lot of meetings and effort and required adding one more light fixture per cloud installation,” Schwarzenbach reflects. “The portals were easier in contrast—they did everything as expected, they out performed our expectations,” adds Cloud.
A Brilliant Result
Since its December opening, the re-imagined Spring Garden Connector has totally changed the visitor and commuter experience by creating an artful, safe-feeling passage. The DRWC and NLNA are pleased in the rejuvenation of the formerly neglected major transit hub. They have even expressed their confidence that this improvement will instigate added investment in public amenities and encourage private and residential development.
The feedback from the local press was positive as well. BillyPenn, a local news source was quoted as saying: “The street improvements at the stop between Second and Front streets feature a light installation so striking that it hits the eye as more than nice urbanism—it’s public art.”
The project has instigated some changes in some of the work we pursue as well. “As a firm we’re interested in projects that emerge in the in the interstitial spaces in the urban environment. These spaces form the connective tissue that link our daily public movement and experience. These environmental projects and working in these urban streetscapes. We like thinking about what kinds of interpretive narratives are there—these types of public placemaking projects are very compelling and exciting to us,” considers Cloud.
The firm has since been commissioned to design a similar underpass intervention in West Philadelphia and also working on a significant project for the city’s new Rail Park. These projects represent the active transformations happening in the city and waterfront thanks to the concerted efforts and interest of Philadelphians.
Project: Spring Garden Connector
Client: Delaware River Waterfront Corporation
Open Date: December 20, 2016
Project Area: 2,500 linear feet
Funding: The William Penn Foundation Project
Landscape Architect/Engineer: NV5 (project lead)
Collaborators: The Lighting Practice (lighting consultant), Urban Sign, Inc. (fabrication/digital integration), AP Construction (general contractor/construction management), Paramount Electrical Services (electrical)
Experiential Graphic Design: Cloud Gehshan Associates—Jerome Cloud, Barbara Schwarzenbach, Stephen Bashore (design); Kate Otte, Jay Hyun, Joe Thoma (support and detailing)
Photography: Tom Crane (photos), Benjamin Riley (video)