We must prevent Walnut Street from being taken over by the banks

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For seven years, I have been sitting at the same coffee table. I told myself that the nook tucked inside Capitol One’s Pete’s Coffee Concept is my productive place with its south-facing windows and the gentle hum of the coffee grinder. In truth, I am seated for the endless parade of four-legged passers-by at the intersection of 17th and Walnut streets.

These days there is no end to the doodle breeds – birma-doodles, golden doodles, muttadoodles, every poodle mix imaginable. A good afternoon includes a lethargic shar-pei or a cranky bulldog. Sometimes a dramatic, overheated corgi needs to be brought home. A good afternoon of watching is an endless tangle of human leashes and exchanging excuses as the dogs pass each other and sniff their tails.

What is lost when a block becomes less dynamic and interesting? Are there just fewer huskies crossing the street or is there a loss of connection due to sidewalk encounters, which collectively and over time function to be places of connection and even to eliminate our prejudices?

However, the frequency of canine entanglements changes as the hallway itself decreases.

Even though there are many more dogs (the only good thing to come out of the pandemic) in the city than before, fewer dogs are crossing the intersection. There is no reason for human companions to cross the walnut tree due to the high number of commercial offerings and current usage.

A large strip of Walnut was demolished after a fire last summer, while countless retailers, including Gap, Ulta Beauty, Talbots, Ann Taylor and H&M, have closed in the wake of the pandemic. (Notably, a few high-end retailers like Barney’s and Intermix closed before the pandemic.) In their absence, banks have become a major player in the landscape. To date, three of the four corners of the busy intersection have been taken over by the banks. Another, Santander, is just a few doors away.

The Center City District provides pedestrian counts for high traffic intersections in the area. The most recent count for March shows that only 7,317 pedestrians crossed this intersection. That’s less than half (18,348) of March 2019, before Covid, and about 3,000 less than the September 2020 tally (10,052), right in the middle of it.

Recently annoyed by my reading and while waiting for the dogs to cross the intersection, I was alarmed by the ads for a Wells Fargo in the old Lucky Jeans location. The changing intersection is a disturbing warning from the monotonous city that awaits us if the diversity of uses is not a priority.

The future of Center City West requires that Walnut Street remain attractive. This means busy streets that generate continuous foot traffic from a variety of cohesive and mixed uses – restaurants, Rittenhouse Square, professional and creative agencies, in addition to retail. These various uses maintain a constant flow of pedestrian (and canine!) Traffic on the sidewalk at all times and make the street lively.

Like clockwork, at 9 a.m. each morning, early morning business commuters are replaced by nannies and strollers. Around 10 a.m., the late morning yogis begin to go home with their mats. After a lull around 11 am, the streets fill with a sea of ​​oxfords of all colors as professionals walk to lunch. The afternoons are packed with students and buyers. Indeed, the continuity of pedestrian traffic is based on convergent mixed uses.

Like William Whyte, urban sociologist and author of City reminds us: “What attracts people the most, it seems, is other people. Although the downtown district pedestrian counts do not differentiate between the direction of pedestrian traffic (north / south versus east / west), it is clear that fewer people pass through Walnut. Instead of zigzagging down the hallway on Rufus’ promenade for coffee, another pair of sneakers (bad Rufus!) Place Rittenhouse.

People walking around Rittenhouse Square
Rittenhouse Square | Courtesy of Visit Philly

There is no reason to cross the trade corridor. Renowned urban planner and author of The life and death of the great American city, Jane Jacobs, underlines that urban spaces can deteriorate as they lose their sources of dynamism:.

Understanding diversity in terms of physical use and purpose, places of interest, like Walnut Street, cease to be a draw when drab and monotonous establishments – in this case banks – hoping to capitalize on foot traffic, colonize the city. space and push back original sources of diversity and appeal. That’s why only Vince remains as a retail outlet at the northwest corner of the intersection. Without retail and the resulting foot traffic, the corridor is no longer a destination of interest in itself. Instead, it simply exists as a channel of communication.

While a convinced city planner would argue that many chain stores point to an already existing homogeneous landscape, many, including Lululemon, Athleta and Warby Parker, function as sources of dynamism since there are no other commercial locations. in the city. We don’t have multiple trade corridors like Fifth Avenue, Madison Street, or Canal Street like New York.

I’m certainly not the only woman who remembers leaving Rittenhouse Square every night at 9pm? Like Jenga’s game, the uses of the city are interdependent. Remove one piece and the whole structure totters.

While it can be argued that nearby amenities such as Rittenhouse Square and the sheer amount of downtown residences will keep the neighborhood vibrant, a quick trip down memory lane serves as a reminder of the essential nature of retail and the mundane future. who could wait for the neighborhood if we count on the highest and best use.

Remember what downtown was like when many storefronts were closed following the financial recession just 10 years ago? Vacancies on Walnut Street quickly spread to Chestnut Street as well. Not only was there an absence of retail, but there was also a loss of secondary establishments like fitness shops and salons which thrived on foot traffic. This converging pedestrian traffic at all hours of the day made the area not only interesting but safe.

I’m certainly not the only woman who remembers leaving Rittenhouse Square every night at 9pm? Like Jenga’s game, the uses of the city are interdependent. Remove one piece and the whole structure totters. Retail makes the area attractive to young creatives, which in turn attracts businesses (a la Richard Florida), making the area ideal for restaurant concepts like Parc and The Love which in turn, generate more pedestrian traffic at the park at night. In the end, it turns out that the park is only as effective as the diversity of its adjacent uses.

What is lost when a block becomes less dynamic and interesting? Are there just fewer huskies crossing the street or is there a loss of connection due to sidewalk encounters, which collectively and over time function to be places of connection and even to eliminate our prejudices as Elijah Anderson describes it in Cosmopolitan awning?

Center City West still has the potential to be a vibrant place of connection. It is close to public transport and major universities. It is surrounded by robust residential neighborhoods. During lunchtime, masked lawyers and realtors always scurry to collect their Chipotle orders as students from Temple and Penn shop for 90s flannel items at the Urban Outfitters flagship store. However, in order to maintain this social tapestry, we need to make interesting streets a priority and a long-term goal for the region.


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How can this be accomplished? First, there must be advocacy and awareness of the importance of the commercial area. When local leaders failed to respond to the large-scale looting and vandalism of the trade corridor last summer, it invariably signaled to the retail industry that business ventures were not safe in Philadelphia.

Second, encourage long-term planning for the area when prospecting for tenants for vacant properties, even if it means incremental growth. “[Nature’s systems] building strength and resilience, ”emphasizes StrongTowns, a think tank dedicated to building financially resilient cities,“ through a model of incremental growth and adaptation. This is true for a crop growing in a petri dish or a rainforest with its very different flora and fauna. The order of these systems emerges from many complex interactions and adaptations. Beyond banks and, increasingly, mobile phone companies, what will bring sustainability to the area?

Let’s be clear, I don’t blame the developers for the homogenization process – it’s extremely difficult to get commercial tenants as a result of Covid. However, the best use must take into account the longevity of the corridor as opposed to the efficiency of the “highest and best use”.

Finally, spark interest in the region with events beyond Center City Sips alcoholic beverages – food truck nights, small business pop-ups, dog nights, taco nights, dog and taco nights… the list goes on. We have to ask ourselves: what do we want the city center to be in 10 years… for our dogs?


Lydia Kulina-Washburn is an educator in Philadelphia, where she lives. His writing explores the intersection between education and the creation of places and has been featured in StrongTowns and NextCity. When not writing, Lydia often takes her goldendoodle for walks. You can follow her here.

The Citizen welcomes comments from community members which state to the best of their ability that they are factual and non-defamatory.

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Header photo courtesy of Visit Philly


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