Filbert Street will soon have the potential to transform into a pedestrian plaza Credit: Courtesy Bellevue Communications

Filbert Street outside Reading Terminal Market will become Philly’s first roadway designed to transform from vehicle pathway to pedestrian plaza, officials announced Thursday.

As the block party capital of the East Coast, Philly often approves closing individual streets to auto traffic in order to host events. Larger celebrations also see roads temporarily transformed into car-free walkways — think Wawa Welcome America on the Parkway, or Philly Free Streets on North Broad. But this is something new.

According to Reading Terminal officials, the city is undertaking a total revamp of the 1100 block of Filbert. When the redesign is done, the street adjacent to RTM will have widened sidewalks, no curbs, and areas that welcome removable seating. It’ll be fronted by retractable bollards that, when raised, make it impassable to cars.

The project aligns with Vision Zero programming — and it just might influence future street initiatives citywide.

The renovation will cost $1 million, and is funded by a mix of state dollars and grants from nonprofits like the Knight Foundation. Once it opens in spring 2020, it’ll include:

  • No more curbs on the 1100 block of Filbert Street — the sidewalks and car lanes will be equal height, separated by poles, making it Center City’s first curbless street
  • Six-foot-wide sidewalks to make room for extra seating
  • Retractable bollards — aka poles to close off the street to cars, which can be mechanically raised and lowered open the roadway back up again
  • New wayfinding signage to help pedestrians find SEPTA’s Jefferson Station
  • A rideshare-designated zone — so you can catch your Lyft at a specifically designated pickup/dropoff spot

The Filbert makeover will make room on the street for more outdoor retail and dining options — and when the street’s closed, there’ll be some modular furniture for folks to sit along the corridor.

Officials say this concept is modeled after other redesigned public spaces in the city, like the Rail Park and Cherry Street Pier. And though it’s not an official pilot, a spokesperson confirmed that the city will be “watching how it develops” to consider setting up similar amenities elsewhere.

With retractable bollards, the street will still be able to support vehicular traffic. Credit: Courtesy Bellevue Communications

Philly’s following in the footsteps of some other major cities — this is a popular phenomenon worldwide. From Copenhagen to Bògota to New York City, cities are opting to trade vehicular thoroughfares for pedestrian walkways.

It’s been seven years since NYC transportation and design officials decided to redesign Times Square — creating a public space by leveling out the curbs, painting the ground maroon and setting up tables and chairs.

“It clearly is a trend,” Lester Brown, president of the nonprofit Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., told Scientific American. “I think there are many cities that are ahead on this.”

Local urbanist activists like Jon Geeting, engagement director of the PAC Philadelphia 3.0, are already on board. From his point of view, the temporary roadblocks demonstrate a perfect compromise between the desires of urbanists and motorists.

“If you start saying you’re going to make a street pedestrian only, people flip out, listing all the times that people might need to get through — and they’re not wrong,” said Geeting, who helped organize the Open Streets PHL advocacy campaign. “This seems like a good interim sort of place to end up.”

He could see a plan like this working out on blocks across the city — like 13th and Sansom in Midtown Village, 4th and Bainbridge on Fabric Row or 9th Street along the Italian Market.

“I would just love to see them do common pedestrian hours at a number of places,” Geeting said. “This is a really great step.”

“The Reading Terminal is a leading example of the power of public spaces to transform communities,” said Ellen Hwang, Philly’s Knight Foundation program director, in a release. “This effort will extend its impact as a community connector that showcases local talent, brings together people of different backgrounds and attaches them to our great city.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...