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Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: November 15, 2005
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Independence Mall to become more accessible

Marking a major about-face, the National Park Service has decided to provide two security screening areas at Independence National Historical Park, perhaps ending a long-running controversy over check-in procedures there.

Federal authorities have opposed such an idea for years, arguing that it was insufficient to protect the park's historic icons after the 9/11 attack. They had argued for more stringent measures, including closing Chestnut Street in front of Independence Hall. Now many of the barriers to pedestrian traffic will be coming down.

Hosts of visitors, area residents, and city officials steadfastly asserted that such security plans were highly intrusive and amounted to an affront to liberty. Officials in the Interior Department and the Park Service have reexamined the problem in the last year or so and switched courses.

"There have been a lot of changes since 9/11," said former park superintendent Mary Bomar, who now heads the Park Service's northeast region. "I really think we've come up with the very best solution. ... Visitors will be safe."

At a news conference on Independence Mall yesterday, officials also announced that funding was in hand to complete the bulk of the long-delayed $17.7 million landscaping project on the mall. The funds will allow the greening of what has become known as the "gravel pit" – an unfinished, rock-strewn area covering an underground parking garage across Arch Street from the National Constitution Center.

The plan to install dual security-screening areas for the park – one near the entrance of the Liberty Bell Center, the other in Old City Hall next to Independence Hall – represents a policy change for the park and for security maven in the Interior Department.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, federal authorites sought to create a virtual cordon sanitaire around the park's major icons – the bell and the hall – including the closing of Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets.

The city obliged at first, but area businesses, residents and park visitors protested the disruption of traffic, the welter of cement traffic barriers and bicycle racks, and the overall affront to freedom of movement at the birthplace of American liberty.

Mayor Street, after listening to the protests, announced that Chestnut Street would be reopened permanently in 2003.

The Park Service then produced a sheaf of different security plans that included running a tunnel under Chestnut Street and mounting security-related construction in Independence Square behind the hall.

Such plans proved either too costly (the tunnel) or too controversial (building on Independence Square).

Over the last year, the park has been screening visitors once at the old bell pavilion on Market Street and then escorting groups across Chestnut Street to Independence Hall.

Meanwhile, a coalition of area businesses, which was spearheading efforts to clear out the disruptive barriers from the historic district, proposed a two-check-in solution to security problems.

Park officials initially dismissed the idea.

They now embrace it.

The plan calls for construction of a security area at the entrance of the Liberty Bell Center.

Officials said yesterday that this area will not encroach on a memorial for George Washington's slaves and the original presidential mansion, planned for the area directly in front of the bell center at Sixth and Market Streets.

Another screening area will be in Old City Hall, Fifth and Chestnut Streets, directly east of Independence Hall.

Once the dual screening facilities are up and running, visitors will be able to walk about the mall largely unimpeded by bicycle-rack security barriers. They will be screened to visit the bell center and also to visit Independence Hall.

Cost of the new security facilities will be a little less than $5 million, said Dennis Reidenbach, who has been serving as acting park superintendent. It also was announced yesterday that Reidenbach has been named permanent park superintendent, succeeding Bomar.

Carter Buller, who heads the area coalition that has pushed for two security checkpoints, applauded the decision to move forward on such a plan. He said it provided "a solution that will best balance the needs of security with pedestrian and vehicular accessibility, historic sensitivity and visitor friendliness."

Buller was also pleased that landscaping funds are finally in hand.

The Pew Charitable Trusts will pony up $2.5 million and the William Penn Foundation will add $1 million for the landscaping. The state is contributing $6 million, and the federal government is adding $1.9 million.

The old Liberty Bell Pavilion on Market Street, currently used for security screening, will be demolished, officials said; this phase of landscaping is to be completed by July 4 of next year, they said.

A cafe on the mall between Market and Arch Streets, which is part of the landscaping plan, remains unfunded. Park officials said they would seek to raise $3.5 million by July 2007 to complete that part of the project.

"The restored mall is testament to what we can accomplish together," said Rebecca W. Rimel, Pew's president and chief executive officer. Over the past decade, the foundation has contributed about $20 million to the rejuvenation of Independence Mall.

The demolition of the old bell pavilion comes after the prolonged efforts to have the building moved and preserved. Despite its bad reputation as a mall rat, the pavilion was widely viewed in the architectural community as something of a gem. It was designed by Mitchell/Giurgola and Associates and erected in 1976.

Richard Stengel, president and chief executive officer of the National Constitution Center, was ecstatic about the landscaping announcement, calling it "fabulous."

"For the longest time, since we've been open, our front door has been barred," Stengel said, alluding to the so-called gravel pit across the street from his facility. "We've been completely cut off."

 

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