Area greening, streetlighting and the addition of public art on Columbia Avenue were explored during a Jan. 9 public meeting that addressed what planners are calling the Columbia Avenue Connector project.
The project is being undertaken in conjunction with PennDOT’s I-95 Revive program, which will see changes come to the overpass at Columbia Avenue.
With a projected five-year development period, the Columbia Avenue Connector project is intended to help better connect Fishtown residents with the Delaware River waterfront and Penn Treaty Park.
The meeting, held at the Fishtown Recreation Center, was hosted by the project’s plan team, composed of members of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., New Kensington Community Development Corp., PennDOT and Studio Bryan Hanes, an architectural firm that previously worked on the Penn Treaty Park Master Plan.
The presentation focused on the three-phase project that encompasses the Columbia Avenue underpass part of I-95 reconstruction — the street between the underpass and Penn Treaty Park, and also the section of Columbia Avenue from Girard Avenue to the underpass.
And, according to Sarah M. Thorp, planning director at the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., it’s an area in need of a facelift.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to get something much better than what’s there now,” she said, referring to how the project could bring improvements like new trees and artwork to the area.
The most controversial issue of the evening seemed to be whether to implement street trees.
Because of narrow parts of the sidewalk, the trees would have to be placed off the curb, causing a loss of total street-parking spots throughout that area.
The proposal called for an additional 22 trees between the I-95 overpass and Girard Avenue, but that would mean the current 67 parking spaces available on the street between the overpass and Girard Avenue would decrease by four.
“It’s a novel idea. It’s done in other places in the country,” Thorp said, pointing to environmentally friendly cities like Portland, Ore.
Thorp added that the trees cannot be simply placed on the sidewalks as an alternative because of overhead wires, utility poles, and residential stoops that already extend to the sidewalk, which will need to be kept free for pedestrians navigating the street.
“Parking is at its premium,” said Scott Seiber, a Columbia Avenue resident who was present at the meeting.
The project also provides residents with some amenities. For example, the I-95 overpass is being redone by PennDOT as part of the ongoing I-95 Revive project.
Also discussed during the Jan. 9 meeting was just how the implementation of art and lighting — both planned for the overpass — might provide enhanced safety and security to the public, especially if they park under the overpass.
These days, because of limited lighting, car break-ins are a regular occurrence.
“It will be a lot brighter, a lot more accessible,” Thorp said.
To decorate the overpass, Hanes proposed a variety of patterned concrete designs that could be used to decorate the overpass, such as a wampum belt design that would represent the belt given to William Penn by Chief Tamanend during the Treaty of Friendship signed at what is now the site of Penn Treaty Park.
Another possible theme involves the history of the shad that gave the neighborhood its name. “It’s become a real symbol of the neighborhood and the spirit of the people that are here,” said Hanes.
Thorp also is interested in “wall wash” — lighting that evenly spreads illumination for vertical surfaces such as walls or paintings.
But there’s another issue that remains key to Columbia Avenue residents — the traffic on the street.
“It’s tough trying to cross Columbia,” said Seiber. “During the daytime, there’s only a few seconds in between each car.”
To combat this, some residents proposed “bump-outs” — curb extensions that expand the sidewalk into the street and encourage drivers to slow down.
Raised crosswalks also were discussed, but Thorp suggested that they could make it harder for the streets department to plow snow during the winter.
She added that traffic-calming is the department’s responsibility, although the DRWC can propose such ideas for future projects.
The whole project will be discussed in March when the DRWC, the Kensington CDC and Bryan Hanes meet with PennDOT to provide more detail on the artistic components of the project.
Overall, planners said that the Columbia Avenue Connector project is expected to be finished in the next five years.
There will be a final public meeting on the project in March. ••