Upgrades to Center City Philadelphia’s public spaces are set to continue as renders showing updated plans for Thomas Paine Plaza have been released. The plaza, which surrounds architect Vincent Kling’s 1962 Municipal Services Building (MSB), is a popular skating spot but has also seen its fair share of protests. Those protests put enough pressure on the city to remove the statue of controversial former police commissioner Frank Rizzo in June 2020, and earlier this year, as AN reported, the city removed Your Move, the board game–themed installation that occupied part of the plaza.
Plans for the plaza’s overhaul from the Philadelphia Department of Public Property (DPP) seek to upgrade the site, following the renovations of Love Park immediately to the west and Dilworth Park immediately to the south, making for a better pedestrian environment. The city approached the project by conducting focus group sessions and surveys with MSB employees. The received feedback indicated a desire for more plants and green space, places to sit and relax, and improved accessibility. Currently, concrete walls line much of the plaza (particularly along Arch Street), and a below-grade section runs the length of Broad Street, creating an ill-tiered system of elevation changes for pedestrians to navigate the site.
These considerations have led to the now-advancing plan, which includes ten components: an access ramp and sloped walkway to the MSB’s main entrance; and arrival grove; the west terrace; the large plaza; a seating bosque; a small plaza; walkways that align with the plaza’s sculptures; an overlook oriented toward City Hall; additional occupiable space along the site’s perimeter; and additional green space.
Along 15th Street, this means a seating area (west terrace) and canopy shade structure next to a kiosk—similar to the setup at Dilworth Park plus shading. Entering the site from JFK Boulevard to the main entrance, the sloped entrance walk will be bounded by red maples, London plane trees, and dogwoods. The eastern half of the site will largely be reserved for the large and small plazas, 10,000-square-feet and 6,000-square-feet, respectively, with the seating bosque—wooden benches and metal chairs under honey locusts—in the middle.
Additional plant beds and trees will bring shade and pervious surface to the site, breaking the concrete and stone mass that most Philadelphians have seen the site as. Along raised planted beds, granite benches will extend out from their walls, supplementing table and chair arrangements elsewhere on the plaza. Jacques Lipchitz’s sculpture Government of the People will retain its position, which will now be on the edge of the large plaza and adjoin a stone platform that doubles as a stage. A row of oak trees will line part of the plaza’s northern perimeter along Arch Street, and LED lighting, which can be color-programmed for special occasions, will be installed around the site.
The proposed design will continue through design and documentation through January 2024, with bidding and contractor selection finalized by May 2024, when groundbreaking is scheduled. The DPP estimates a total cost of $20 million. Eventually, the city hopes to infill the sunken plaza along Broad Street, which would bring the eastern side of the site to street level, in-line with the city’s 2035 Plan. The 2035 plan includes a number of ambitious proposals including additional Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) and Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO) stations, new parks, and infill housing plans, aligned with broader pedestrianization goals. In a way, as the DPP argues, the plans for Thomas Paine Plaza are a return to the site’s past. In the mid-1800s the site was filled with rowhouses, and in 1917, with the construction of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Reyburn Plaza, a street-level park, was constructed on the site. It was only in 1962 that the street was vertically disconnected from the street, and with these interventions from the DPP, that era may soon be over.