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Groundbreaking begins at Dilworth plaza at city hall. Mayor nutter and Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood were in attendance. Credit: Dan Nessenson , Dan Nessenson

The City broke ground Monday on a $50-million renovation of Dilworth Plaza, the public square west of City Hall that was formerly the site of the Occupy Philadelphia encampment.

The space will be transformed into “an oasis in the center of the city,” said Stephen Kieran, a 1976 School of Design graduate and adjunct professor of architecture at PennDesign.

The architecture firm KieranTimberlake — founded by Kieran and James Timberlake, a 1977 PennDesign graduate and PennDesign adjunct professor of architecture — is the main designer for the project.

Kieran said the firm has three main goals for the plaza.

The first is to bring the entire space to level ground, eliminating the sunken areas that lead to the transportation hub underneath.

The second goal is to provide access to this hub in a way that is “deferential to the City Hall structure.” To achieve this effect, the firm designed two glass arcs at the underground entryways to frame the building behind it.

“The idea was to do something that was a monumental gesture,” Kieran said, “but, at the same time, it’s completely open and welcoming.”

The third goal is to develop the amenities of the space. Dilworth Plaza will include a lawn, tree groves, a fountain and a cafe. In the winter, the fountain will be transformed into a skating rink.

Aiding KieranTimberlake are landscape architecture firm OLIN — founded by PennDesign professor of landscape architecture Laurie Olin — and Urban Engineers.

“It’s very much a team effort,” Kieran said.

Design work began in the fall of 2008, and construction is estimated to be finished by early 2014.

The renovation is being financed partly through a $15-million grant from the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program.

United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who attended the groundbreaking, said “the TIGER grant is a result of good leadership on behalf of President [Barack] Obama.”

Obama has made transportation a more prominent national issue recently, announcing in his State of the Union address last week that he would support legislation on transportation because “so much of America needs to be rebuilt.”

“Transportation has always been bipartisan,” LaHood said.

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), who represents the Congressional district in which Penn is situated, said Philadelphia is a deserving recipient of a TIGER grant.

“Philadelphia is a place that can be a shining example for the rest of the country,” he said at the ceremony.

Dilworth Plaza is located above a major intersection of SEPTA, trolley and regional rail lines that serves more than 300,000 commuters every day.

On Nov. 30, police cleared Occupy Philadelphia protesters from Dilworth Plaza, a confrontation that led to the arrest of 52 people. The protesters were evicted to allow the renovation of the plaza to commence.

On Sunday night, Occupy Philadelphia demonstrated at Dilworth Plaza once again. Police arrested two people after protesters knocked down a fence at the construction site.

At the groundbreaking, Mayor Michael Nutter, a 1979 Wharton graduate, made a reference to the Occupy movement, saying that “more than 900 workers are going to occupy Dilworth Plaza very, very soon.”

Kieran said he empathized with the Occupy Philadelphia protesters, but “the end result of this project will be a place everybody can use, including protesters.”

“Part of the function of public space … is either for celebration, protest or daily enjoyment,” he said.

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