Thursday, April 28, 2016

Putting Some Park into Old Parking Lots

For some time I've been mildly annoyed by the parking lot in the 1700 block of Rittenhouse Square Street - it's right behind the Art Alliance on what should be one of the prettiest blocks in the city.

I scrounged around online and found a 2010 document from the Philadelphia City Planning Commission that goes over design requirements for new parking lots. There are nice fences and planting beds, even trees. I'm not a landscape architect, but it seems that lots built to these specifications would actually look reasonably nice, for parking lots. I'm mindful of the Penn lots on 19th and 20th, west of the old Graduate Hospital.

But I couldn't find anything about requirements for existing parking lots. I was talking about this with my brother, whose experience is in New York, not Philadelphia. John suggested that existing parking lots are probably grandfathered, meaning they don't have to do anything when new regulations come along. Or perhaps they only have to conform if they do a major renovation. This second option may be worse than the first, because it gives the lot owner an incentive not to fix anything.

John suggested that a better way was sunsetting, giving the owner a transition period of several years, at the end of which the lot needs to conform to the current guidelines.

I have several full-frontal shots of this lot, and I can't post them. They're just too depressing. I'm also leaving out the razor wire on the other side of Manning.

I still couldn't figure out what the story was with existing lots in Philly, so I asked my friend Jim Campbell if he could help, and he sent me on to David Perri, commissioner of licenses and inspections and former streets commissioner. Commissioner Perri got right back to me and confirmed my worst fears: Existing lots in Philly are grandfathered, unless they do a major renovation. No sunset provision. The execrable parking lot behind the Art Alliance can sit there, unchanging, until the crack of doom.

There has to be a better way. There is. Once again I went begging to my brother, and once again he came through and sent me the link to Section 52-70 of the NYC Zoning Resolution, Termination of Certain Non-Conforming Uses After Amortization. This is New York's sunset provision.

Now all we need is some bright young lawyer to craft similar legislation that would apply to existing surface lots in Philly. And then we need to assemble a coalition to get it passed.

To give this little venture a reasonable chance of success, I suggest aiming the sunset provision at a limited geographical area and applying it only to commercial surface parking lots. So schools, for instance, would not be affected. And perhaps the legislation could be an amendment to an existing district. The Rittenhouse-Fitler Historic District covers the 1700 block of Rittenhouse Square Street. Perhaps the legislation could be attached there. I don't know if that's the right approach, but at least it's a place to start.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Pavements of Asbury Park

Buried Treasure

The Asbury Park boardwalk is built out of wood. This is worth mentioning because Ocean Grove, to the south, has started laying in planks made out of plastic. Coney Island in New York has also done this. And the new boardwalk on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia is made out of reinforced concrete.

I'm okay with these new materials, but it got me thinking about the idea that modern roads are almost always paved in asphalt. It was not ever thus. Roads could be paved in wood. We actually still have one in Philadelphia, on Camac Street. It's currently under a protective layer of asphalt because of some drainage issues, but I'm told that the wood will come back to daylight soon. And of course there have been cobblestones and Belgian block and brick.

I was thinking of this as I was walking along Park Avenue in Asbury Park, near Deal Lake Drive. I'd noticed for some time that the asphalt near the curbstone was often missing, revealing a layer of brick pavement. I'd never thought about it very much. I started looking closer.

This particular stretch of street hasn't been repaved in a while, and large parts of the wearing course of asphalt are missing, particularly at the edge of the street. One of the reasons for this is that the wearing course of asphalt - the top layer of pavement - is often less than an inch thick over the bricks. In the cartway of the street, where the cars go, it is generally about 1 3/4 inches. There were enough potholes to allow me to measure this quite a few times.

In summary, under the curb-to-curb slathering of asphalt there is an old road. At the edge, where the cars park, there is brick. Then there is a single line of Belgian block, which separates the brick shoulder from the cartway. Under the asphalt on the cartway there is a dense mixture of blond sand and round beach pebbles. Back in the day you would lay this down and then drive over it with a steamroller, and call it a macadam road. Then, later on, you could put a thin layer of asphalt on top and call it tarmac. I hope I got that right.

I felt like I'd discovered an old Roman road. This street in Asbury Park was blond macadam in the middle and red brick at the edge, with a thin strip of grey Belgian block separating the two. Imagine what that would have looked like.

I'm not suggesting that we abandon asphalt and return to macadam. But our roads were not always wall-to-wall black asphalt. Visually, we had lost something on Park Avenue. The street used to be more interesting to look at. And frankly, as the asphalt disintegrates, we're getting back to a very good place. Need to work on the sod.