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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: August 7, 2004
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Leaders decry proposal for Independence Square

Civic and political leaders yesterday reacted critically to an Independence Park plan calling for construction of a security and bathroom facility on Independence Square, and a permanent fence across the square blocking access to the rear of Independence Hall.

Mayor Street, who had not seen the plan, said: "We feel very strongly that Independence Hall shouldn't be a fortress."

State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.) said he was "prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with business and community leaders to fight the proposal."

The plan, which has been shared with some state and local preservation officials and private groups in the last few weeks, is in the preliminary stages, Independence National Historical Park officials said earlier in the week. It calls for construction of two security screening facilities, one on the square — where the Declaration of Independence was first read to the public — and one across Chestnut Street, on the west side of the Liberty Bell Center.

Mary Bomar, park superintendent, released a statement yesterday emphasizing that no final decision had been made on the plan and that the park would seek a public forum to discuss this and, perhaps, alternative proposals.

Bomar did not respond to requests for additional comment yesterday. Street said the superintendent "has been very open with us, and we want to continue to have a good relationship with the Park Service."

The plan is the latest in a series of security proposals considered by officials at Independence Park after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The park's long-preferred solution to its perceived security needs calls for the closing of Chestnut Street in front of Independence Hall.

The city complied with that wish in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, but decided to reopen the street in 2003.

Since then, the park has considered and rejected other ideas: a plan to run a tunnel under Chestnut Street and a proposal to utilize existing buildings on either side of Independence Hall for security facilities. The latter plan is favored by a coalition of business owners and residents in the area.

Carter Buller, president of the coalition, said his group had seen the park's current proposal but had not taken a position on it.

"The plans are such that they need to be aired very thoroughly at a public meeting," Buller said, adding that park officials said they would also reconsider a plan to put the hall screening facilities in existing buildings.

Park officials said this week, however, that the plan to use existing buildings was no longer being considered because it failed to afford adequate blast protection for the hall.

Visitors to the park are screened at the old Liberty Bell pavilion on Market Street before entering the Liberty Bell Center. Those with tickets to see Independence Hall must be escorted from the Liberty Bell Center across Chestnut Street to the hall by rangers and private guards.

Park officials said this arrangement was working reasonably well but was labor-intensive and viewed as temporary.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), touring flooded areas in Upper Darby yesterday, said that he had not seen the latest park plan but that "a very powerful case" would be need to be made to justify blocking the rear of the hall.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) said he would work to balance "security needs and visitor access." She did not comment on the specifics of the current proposal.

City Councilman Frank DiCicco, who was involved in resolving issues related to the closing of Chestnut Street, wondered where the security push would end.

"This building, where the Declaration of Independence was drafted, you never want to see it damaged," DiCicco said. "But when you make it so restrictive, isn't that contradicting what the document was all about? How much security do you build in before you cross the line and become less free?"

Local residents are also concerned. Judith Kaplow Applebaum, president of the Washington Square West Civic Association, called the plan outrageous.

"It would destroy the square to put a building up in the middle of it and fence it off," she said. "It does nothing to enhance the experience of visitors or the people who live here and sends a message that we are afraid."

David Barna, Washington spokesman for the Park Service, said yesterday that the Department of Homeland Security has requested increased security at nine park sites, including Independence Hall. Some of these, such as the Statue of Liberty and the USS Constitution, in Boston, have seen major security upgrades since 9/11.

 

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