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There are few who doubt that a new South Street Bridge is needed, and fast. From the cracked pavement to the corroded metal, everything about this 85-year-old structure demands renovation. In certain areas, the metal has worn away so much that pedestrians are given an unintended look at the Schuylkill River below.

When it comes to the look of that new bridge, however, the city has found itself deeply at odds with the surrounding community.

The design proposed by the city will make the South Street Bridge much more structurally sound than it is today. Still, several neighborhood associations recently joined forces to push for changes, arguing that the current plan is cold, industrial and lacks pedestrian-friendly features.

The coalition has been unable to sway the Streets Department to consider changes, so it is turning to another neighbor of sorts, the University of Pennsylvania, for help.

But to their surprise, Penn officials say they will not get involved.

The University argues that the priority is to get the bridge - considered a lifeline to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania - rebuilt as soon as possible, not to dwell on design issues.

The Streets Department recently announced that the start date for the $52 million construction project has been pushed back from this spring to the end of the summer. In the meantime, the community groups fighting the proposed design are still hoping the University will change its mind.

Falling apart

The South Street Bridge was first built in 1923, and was considered a marvel of modern engineering. But over time, the bridge fell into disrepair as a result of shoddy maintenance and heavy use.

Calls for a new bridge intensified throughout the 1990s as the structure began to slowly, literally fall apart.

In February 2004, for instance, chunks of concrete broke off the bridge and left a hole in a walkway below. While no one was hurt, it was one of many signs that the bridge was in an unacceptable condition.

The city unveiled the first version of the design for the new bridge in 2001. Negative feedback from community groups sent them back to the drawing board.

"The neighborhoods said, we want to get involved, but the city said it was too early," said Bill Faust, former director of the Center City Resident's Association, a neighborhood advocacy group. "And then the design came out and the city said it was too late."

David Perri, the Streets Department official in charge of the project, wrote in an e-mail that seven public meetings were held to discuss the design between 1996 and 2007, when the most recent design was released.

The 2007 version features five car lanes - there are currently four - a nine-foot-wide pedestrian sidewalk and five-foot-wide bicycle lanes. John Randolph, founder and former president of the Schuylkill River Development Council, wrote in an e-mail that these dimensions are far too narrow for comfortable use.

Several changes were made from the original design to make more room for pedestrians and bicyclists, but the community groups say the plan still fails to meet their expectations.

"The present bridge design, similarly to the Walnut Street bridge design of the early 90s, emphasizes the needs of vehicular traffic at the expense of pedestrian and bicycle traffic," Randolph wrote.

Randolph also wrote that several specific parts of the design are troubling, from the lack of a barrier between the cars and pedestrians, to the enclosed lookout towers, which he believes could prove helpful to would-be muggers.

The physical look of the bridge has also been heavily criticized.

"It's not context-sensitive, it's simply not up-to-date," said Jim Campbell, a long-time South Philadelphia resident and member of the South of South Neighborhood Association. "You see a super-highway bridge."

Since the design was released, Campbell and the other neighborhood associations have been pushing for a redesign at best, or several changes to the existing design at worst.

In addition to area politicians and other involved groups, letters were sent to Penn officials asking for their support.

Penn's director of Government and Community Affairs, Dawn Deitch, said the groups have had considerable success rallying support from local and state politicians, making their request for University involvement puzzling.

"The elected officials are there to [respond to community concerns], you don't want a private institution influencing a public decision," Deitch said. The University always seeks community input on Penn projects, she added, but "this thing is public all the way."

Campbell argues, though, that in a fight against the city, "Penn is the 800-pound gorilla" across the river.

Staying neutral

University spokesman Tony Sorrentino said Penn will not take a side in the current debate, to the dismay of Campbell and the other groups.

"We don't want to use our authority to affect someone else's project," said University architect David Hollenberg.

He added, however, that the Streets Department did consult him and his predecessor, Charles Newman - who declined to be interviewed for this article - about the design several times during the planning process.

Penn even lobbied successfully for some changes during meetings with the Streets Department, according to Hollenberg. One such change was a redesign of the guard rails on the sides of the bridge.

Following these changes, Hollenberg wrote an April 2007 letter to the Art Commission of the City of Philadelphia expressing approval.

"The Art Commission has no further objections [to the design], and nor do we," Hollenberg wrote.

Unless the city asks again for Penn's opinion, the University will not insert itself into the conversation.

"For us to intercede on a public-works project like this, in opposition to it, we'd have to see it endangering the health, safety and well-being of campus life," Sorrentino said.

Penn disconnects

Penn's refusal to take sides has not sat well with the neighborhood coalition.

"We think that they are a private institution and they're being corporately obstinate," Campbell said. "We think Penn needs to step in here and say, 'Look, we're a 21st-century institution, we don't need an SUV bridge.'"

For University officials, however, it ultimately comes down to matters of time and safety.

In addition to handling HUP traffic, the bridge is one of the major arteries bringing professors, staff, students and visitors onto campus.

Sorrentino said the August 2007 collapse of an interstate bridge in Minneapolis - which killed seven individuals and injured many more - highlighted the importance of preventing further delays, even if the design isn't perfect.

Campbell, Randolph and others argue that they, too, consider safety a top concern.

"Everybody realizes the bridge is dangerous," Campbell said. "But we think the administration is insensitive to the number of pedestrians, bicyclists and commuters who drive across the bridge."

Still pushing

Although the start date for construction is quickly approaching, the community groups are still hoping to push for changes in the design.

They plan to release a report with specific findings from a design conference held in early March. According to Perri, the Streets Department is "evaluating whether some of the ideas . can be incorporated into the current design."

And in the meantime, Campbell and the rest of the coalition will also continue to ask for support from a whole host of politicians, city planning organizations and, of course, Penn.

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