Tiny WPA is turning Jersey barriers into benches to be used by the Fishtown District in creating mini public spaces around the neighborhood. (Courtesy Tiny WPA)

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The restaurant streeteries that were everywhere during the early days of the pandemic have mostly disappeared in response to the city’s strict new design and safety requirements.

But in the spirit of turning lemons into lemonade, designers are working to reimagine one of the recommended safety features for streeteries — ugly orange Jersey barriers, like those commonly seen around construction sites — to help create attractive new public spaces on the streets.

In Fishtown, plastic barriers that have been transformed into seating and art displays will be used to create a public parklet in a popular restaurant district, and to help tame the rough-and-tumble underbelly of the Girard El station.

Planning is underway for additional parklets around Fishtown. Eventually, individual restaurants could use the decked-out barriers to open new, permanent streeteries.

“Our public sphere is so precious and in many ways underloved in Philadelphia,” said Alex Gilliam, director of design at West Philly nonprofit Tiny WPA, where the Better Barriers are being developed. “These barriers should be giving back to a space rather than taking away.” 

A barrier that draws people in, instead of keeping them out

Designers in other cities have tried to gussy up highway barriers, although it’s unclear how widely those designs are used. In Philly the Better Barriers come out of the 3-year-old Fishtown District’s efforts to invigorate its business corridors and generally improve the neighborhood. 

In 2021, community members and the design firm ISA came up with plans to spruce up and enliven several wide, multi-street intersections around Fishtown. They envisioned features like lighting, planters, and food trucks, along with safety barriers required by the Streets Department.

The district and its designers wanted to make more than utilitarian use of the bland water-filled barriers, said Marc Collazzo, executive director at the Fishtown District.

“They serve their obvious safety purpose, and that is paramount,” Collazzo told Billy Penn. “But they have to look good, they have to look attractive, and they have to look interesting, especially with this neighborhood where the artistic culture is so prominent and so resonant.”

The team at Tiny WPA working on the Better Barrier project. (Courtesy Tiny WPA)

ISA enlisted Tiny WPA, which teaches community members to design and build outdoor furniture and other objects, to help come up with new barrier looks. 

At a fabrication session earlier this month, two groups of Tiny WPA staffers spent hours crafting prototype wood covers and figuring out how to securely attach them to a white, round-topped Jersey barrier model ISA had brought in. 

One team built a saddle-like box over the barrier, with smooth sides that could exhibit community artwork. A recessed top could serve as a planter for a restaurant to grow herbs, or as Tiny WPA lead fabricator Barry Smith playfully demonstrated, as a snug spot to lie down.

The other team framed out a barrier and used strips of wood to fashion benches alongside and over it.

“We kind of just grabbed cedar and put down the seating, figuring out what will be comfortable for somebody to sit on,” shop manager Sky Chandler said. “The top part is also a seating area.”

The group mused about creative ways to take advantage of the water that will fill the barrier, perhaps by refracting light through a clear-sided barrier to produce patterns on the ground or making the whole barrier glow.

Helping restaurants adapt to new safety rules

This summer, Fishtown District will use Better Barriers to cordon off part of the branching intersection of Cecil B. Moore Avenue near Front Street. The parklet they’ll create will be right next to The International Bar’s streetery.

The bi-level tavern next to the El is one of relatively few restaurants to keep its streetery after the city cracked down on non-compliant structures, co-owner Paul Kimport noted. He dismantled the one at sister bar Standard Tap in Northern Liberties, in part because the available street space didn’t satisfy the new requirements. 

But Kimport recognizes that the way it worked during the emergency “had to evolve,” he said. “Going forward you’re going to have to be responsible for improving the quality of what you’re creating, and making it safer.”

The city rules announced in October 2022 frustrated many Philly restaurateurs because they banned many common streetery features including tent coverings, shipping containers, and propane heaters. Crash barriers are now required, and at some intersections the seating areas must be at least 30 feet from street corners.

Officials want to prevent incidents like a May 2021 crash in Northern Liberties that injured six people. The driver of a sedan had tried to pass another vehicle and struck a typical wood-framed streetery outside the popular restaurant Cafe La Maude, splintering the structure.

While the Fishtown District is initially focusing on using the enhanced barriers to create public parklets, ISA creative director Brian Phillips said they could eventually help restaurants defray the cost of a streetery.

“You could imagine a business improvement district having a flock of these Better Barriers that become available to their restaurants, to their corridors,” Phillips said. “Because we’ve heard what streeteries can cost and they’re big numbers, tens of thousands of dollars.”

Transforming the El station at Front and Girard

Once designs are finalized, Better Barrier prototypes will be placed in front of Fishtown District offices to gauge public response, said Collazzo, the executive director.

If all goes well, they’ll be used for the Cecil B. Moore parklet, which was partially inspired by a longstanding similar space at 23rd and South streets. The Fishtown project is funded by a Pa. Local Share Account grant. 

The parklet will adjoin The International Bar’s streetery, but be fully open to the public, including people strolling to or picking up food from the restaurants and bars that continue to proliferate in the area, such as Mike Solomonov’s Goldie, Evil Genius Beer, Stateside Vodka, Fermentery Form, and Stephen Starr’s LMNO. There are more on the way, Collazzo said. 

Rendering of the forthcoming parklet at the El Girard stop. (Courtey Fishtown District)

The district also plans to use barriers as part of a major grant-funded renovation project at the El station at Front and Girard. 

SEPTA has been working to address major safety and cleanliness problems at several of its Frankford Line stations, and Collazzo said the agency will be installing security doors on the Girard Station stairs and making other changes.

This fall the Fishtown District will add lighting and a booth for its safety ambassadors in the area under the station, which is often crowded with visitors walking through on their way to restaurants, clubs, and other attractions, he said. Better Barriers will be placed along the curb to beautify the site, protect pedestrians, and discourage sidewalk congestion. 

Collazzo said the district plans to eventually create another parklet at Frankford and Lehigh, and is eyeing two other Frankford intersections, at Shackamaxon and York streets, for possible future projects.  

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Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...