With Chestnut Street now open to traffic, the National Park Service is keeping a shroud of secrecy over its latest plan for protecting Independence Hall: a security fence.
Overland Partners of San Antonio, Texas, has been commissioned by the Park Service to design the security fence, and it has been told not to talk.
"We've been asked not to divulge any of the details of the work we're doing with the Park Service," said Scott Carpenter, a senior architect at Overland. "They want the architect not to speak at all."
Phil Sheridan, spokesman for the National Park Service, said he did not know when the design would be ready, or whether there was a deadline for its presentation to the Park Service.
There already has been at least one major conflict over the proposed fence - between the local design firm that devised the park's master plan and the Park Service.
More could lie ahead as two city agencies - the Philadelphia Historical Commission and the Philadelphia Art Commission - plus the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission will examine the design.
The agencies will hold public hearings before a vote is taken.
There's also the matter of the July 14, 1950, agreement between the city and the U.S. Interior Department, which oversees the Park Service. The agreement suggests the city will have a say in the matter.
"Any work of restoration or any major alterations or repairs to any of the buildings shall not be undertaken until the plans for such work shall have been mutually agreed upon," it states.
Ann Meredith, cofounder of the Coalition to Free Chestnut Street, which successfully lobbied to have the street in front of Independence Hall opened, said she wanted the public to be involved.
"We hope the National Park Service has learned by now that we, the people of Philadelphia, want and deserve involvement in the planning and design process concerning matters that greatly impact us," Meredith said. "Putting up walls around a public park in the middle of our city warrants a real commitment to community input and a credible cost-benefit analysis."
"We're not sure what level of public input would be required because we're not sure what the design would be," Sheridan said. "We're not going to avoid the appropriate level of review, but we don't know what level it would be."
One reason the fence design is being handled by a firm from Texas is that Olin Partnership, the local firm responsible for the overall design of the park, refused the assignment.
Last fall, the Park Service asked Olin to add the fence to the design.
"They asked us, and we refused," founding partner Laurie D. Olin said. "Every time they get a chance to make a mistake, they do it."
Jean S. Weston, a landscape architect with the firm, said the fence would run counter to the park's master design, which follows a Park Service goal of trying to integrate the park into the city.
"We designed the park to be open and accessible," Weston said. The fence "is something we felt very strongly about."
The Park Service then turned to Overland, which has done other work for the agency.
Weston pointed out that the Park Service made an issue of integrating Independence Park into the city in its general management plan of 1997, which says that "the park and the community will work together to transform the visitor experience in the park and in the historic neighborhood beyond."
It also says, "Partnership between the park and community is essential to realizing the goals of the park, neighborhood residents and the city, and to ensuring the highest-quality experience for visitors."
Weston said she believed the Park Service had gone overboard in its concerns for security.
"It doesn't make us safer, it makes us nuts."
"Independence Hall is the most important historic building in the country," he said. "Ever since 9/11 we've been in a situation where we have to protect such places. Why wouldn't we protect Independence Hall?"