by Kevin Dicciani
The Philadelphia Streets Department told more than a dozen residents at a Land Use, Planning and Zoning Committee meeting on Jan. 8 that the Bells Mill Road reconstruction project was not “set in stone” and that their feedback was critical in determining its fate.
Darin Gatti, chief engineer of the Streets Department, and Vadim Fleysh, the department’s engineering manager and head of the design unit, presented the Bells Mill Road Roadway Reconstruction project to the LUPZ board and community in hopes of receiving feedback about whether or not to continue, modify, or abandon the project yet again, since it has been in the works for more than 20 years and was previously shelved due to lack of funding and unresolved community issues.
Fleysh said the limits of the Bells Mill Road reconstruction are between Germantown and Stenton avenues, which includes complete reconstruction within the legal and city right-of-way. The project also includes plans for the reconstruction of the culvert bridge on the E. Bells Mill. He added than an average of 3,900 cars a day travel on Bells Mill.
Some of the project’s features, Fleysh said, include narrowing the cartway from 20-24 feet to a consistent 17 to 18 feet, and widening it to 23 feet where it meets Stenton to allow for both left- and right-hand turns. The travel lane would remain 11 feet wide. There are plans to add striped shoulders between 2 to 4 feet and install granite curbs on both sides of the street, where there are currently none.
The project also includes plans to add a sidewalk adjacent to Germantown and Stenton avenues that will be 4 to 5 feet in width. To deal with drainage issues, 18 inlets will be installed, with some connecting to the existing sewer and some to a new storm water pipe that will drain directly into the creek.
The culvert will be reconstructed with prefabricated concrete, Fleysh said. At the moment, there are concrete barriers located on both sides of the culvert. Fleysh said that every so often maintenance crews need to retrieve the barriers from the creek when they are pushed into it by runoff. The new culvert would eliminate that issue, he said.
The preliminary designs for the project began in 1994. Between 1996 and 1998, and in 2003, meetings were held within the community. In 2001, historical and environmental clearance was prepared and approved, which includes Section 106 and categorical exclusion environmental clearance. The preliminary design was completed and approved in 2001, and in 2006 the design was finalized. The project was then shelved.
If the project advances, Fleysh said the projected reconstruction would take place from spring 2017 to spring 2018. The estimated cost is $3,500,000, with 80 percent of the funding coming from federal grants and the rest coming out of city grants. During the reconstruction, Bells Mill Road will be closed to through traffic but will remain open for local traffic.
Following the Streets Department’s presentation, the meeting was opened up to the floor for questions or comments from residents.
A majority of the neighbors balked at the idea of adding a sidewalk to Bells Mill. They said the road doesn’t lend itself to curbs, and they are skeptical about how safe it would be to walk down the sidewalk, calling it “too dangerous” and saying hardly anyone walks or bikes down the road.
Fleysh responded with a question. “Do you feel that’s because no one wants to walk down there or because there’s no sidewalk?”
One resident said it’s because there is “nowhere to go.”
Gatti said the Streets Department has made a request to the State and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to verify whether a sidewalk installation would be required as part of the grant funding on this project, or whether the project would lose funding if the department eschewed its role in the design altogether. He said the preliminary indications are that the FHWA would allow the project to receive funding and proceed without sidewalks, but that it is yet to be determined. The curbs would likely remain in the design, though, Gatti said, as they channel runoff and decrease erosion.
Other concerns involved parking on East Bells Mill. Some neighbors said that adding sidewalks and curbs would eliminate the space neighbors and delivery workers use to park. Gatti said that alterations could potentially be made to plan so that one side of the street could be used for vehicular traffic and the other for the shoulder and parking.
Janice Manzi, who has been living on East Bells Mill since 1982, said, “Bells Mill Road is a country road in the city,” and that it is one of the few places in Philadelphia that you can “feel history.” She said that the city will “lose history” if the road is reconstructed with sidewalks and curbs – although she is in favor of fixing the culvert.
“Every street that touches East Bells Mill Road has no sidewalks,” Manzi said. “Frankly, the only people you’re making sidewalks for live on East Bells Mill Rd., and most of the people in this room don’t want them.”
Gatti said that “3,900 cars per day is not the volume for a country road.”
“It may look like a country road, but it’s taking the traffic of an urban street,” he said.
Raising other objections was William Valerio, director of Woodmere Art Museum. As well as opposing the sidewalks, noting that he opposed anything that would force Woodmere to pay for the maintenance fees the sidewalks accrue in winter, he said he was concerned that reconstruction would affect the stone retaining walls on the museum’s estate, which he said he and Woodmere are committed to preserving.
Gatti said the retaining wall would not be affected whatsoever.
One consensus reached by both the neighbors and the Streets Department was that the culvert desperately needed to be fixed. Gatti said that it is dangerous and needs to be fixed because it is “not safe.” Eventually, he said, it is going to collapse and then the road will have to be completely closed.
When asked if certain aspects of the project could be kept while discarding others, Gatti mentioned that if too many parts of the project are altered the project may be abandoned, and then there will be no money to fix the culvert, since then it would have to come 100 percent from city funds, which, right now, he said, is not in the budget.
“You have to remember that I have safety standards that I have to follow,” Gatti said. “This road needs to be safe. The new road needs to be safe – no questions about it. I will not compromise public safety.”
Gatti said the ideal thing for him would be to modify the project to get community support. If the community rejects the modifications, Gatti said the project will be abandoned, which he said he doesn’t want to see happen. He said that his goal for the meeting was to get as much feedback from the community as possible so he could proceed forward and do what’s best for the city and the community.
“My job is to best manage our right-of-ways for all of their users, so I have to find the right balance between pedestrians, bicycles, cars, trucks, buses and handicapped users,” Gatti said. “What I need is feedback from the community because I have to make a decision as to what to do with the project. Do we continue with the project, do we modify the project, or do we abandon the project?”