University City Review: Still Coming: the much-needed improvements to the trolley portal at 40th and Baltimore Avenue

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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By Nicole Contosta

In 2012, this reporter attended community meetings organized by the Spruce Hill Community Association (SHCA) and the University City District (UCD) on renovating the 40th Street Trolley Portal.

But according to Prema Katari Gupta, the Director of Planning and Economic Development at the UCD, the trolley portal’s design was proposed both "before my time. And my boss’s time," Gupta said of Matt Bergheiser, UCD’s Executive Director.

In fact, the discussion can be traced several years back to the Gateway Project conducted by the UCD and community partners, Gupta explained. And the trolley portal was identified as one of the key gateways to improve in University City, Gupta relayed. After all, it’s the location where trolley routes 11, 13, 34 and 36 all converge. Subsequently, the UCD had some discussions with the community about the proposal several years ago, Gupta said adding that the discussion stalled.

Then, about three years later, Barry Grossbach, SHCA Zoning Chair urged the UCD to reboot the process. So the UCD, having received a planning grant from the William Penn Foundation in 2012, invited the landscape architecture firm Andropogen Associates to the community meeting process.

"It was an intense community process," Gupta said. And the project’s key stakeholders were able to get the project off the ground by bringing the city, which owns the land, and SEPTA "to the table from the beginning," Gupta explained, adding, "SEPTA has obvious operational concerns for what happens to the site."

Those discussions between the UCD, the city, SEPTA and the community led to the portal’s current two-phased plan: the plaza and the apron.

The plaza is located on the grassy triangle bordering Baltimore Avenue, Gupta said, explaining its redesign will include a café with outdoor tables and chairs.

And the apron, Gupta continued, "is right on the trolley tracks. I think," Gupta paused, "one of the older ideas had the café located in that area. Understandably, SEPTA was concerned about having a plaza there."

That said, "SEPTA has been incredibly flexible and accommodating about what we want to do along Baltimore Ave."

In turn, the UCD has worked to accommodate SEPTA when it comes to the apron. "SEPTA said it would really help if the design could pick up the pedestrian circulation. Because," Gupta explained, "there’s a mess of pedestrians and surface trolleys and everyone can be everywhere."

Other design features on the Apron such as meadow like mounds with plants will "buffer the sound of the trolleys too," Gupta explained, adding, the mounds will help with storm-run off. And "there will be seating in the apron to watch the trolleys come and go."

The portal’s proximately to the Woodlands makes it an ideal spot to attract butterflies and humming birds, Gupta added.

Besides, beautifying the area, the UCD wants the portal "to reflect different things to interest different people in Philadelphia."

When open, the plaza will host programing. And "we’d like to include free Wi-Fi so students can visit and do their work," Gupta explained.

It all sounds pretty appealing to this reporter. So when exactly can West Philly residents see the trolley plan become reality?

"It should happen soon," Gupta said, explaining the UCD will issue an RFQ to potential café owners in the near future.

"There’s just a little gap in fundraising," Gupta said of the $2 million cost, "but we’re getting close." And Gupta relayed, the UCD is in the process of devising ways to receive individual donations for the portal’s renovation.

"It’s been a very long process," Gupta said. "But we’ve had great partners. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell has been very supportive."