Should the Building Collapse Site Become a Memorial Park?

The event was devastating, but a memorial isn’t the appropriate response.

Before and after? Photograph by Claudia Gavin

A conceptual rendering of the park demonstrates how it might look. Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Let me come right out and say it: I think the memorial park planned for the site of last year’s building collapse at 22nd and Market is misguided. This isn’t a position that will endear me to anyone related to the seven people who lost their lives as a result of the disaster, or to the 13 injured or their families. But I think it’s important to evaluate the decision from a dispassionate point of view. As Ed Bacon might have said, “There’s no crying in planning.”

The truth is, today’s Philadelphians are temporary custodians of a city defined by its longevity. We take care to maintain the city as a historical record — not only of itself, but of the nation since its founding. And when we create something new, we act as the city’s interpreters. Future generations of tourists will flock to sites we deem significant, so we must be judicious.

My primary objection to the memorial park is within this long-lensed context. I can’t help but feel that from a historical point of view — whether in terms of lives lost, destruction of property, or larger sociopolitical implications — the park is a disproportionate response to last year’s devastating event.

Is there a memorial park at the site of the MOVE bombing? Is there a leafy glen where seven died in the Lex Street Massacre? What about memorial parks for the firefighters who perished in the Gulf Oil refinery fire? Or those lost in the Pier 34 collapse?

There’s not even a park to commemorate the Nativist Riots in 1844, during which 15 people died, hundreds were injured and several churches were burnt to the ground. Those riots resulted in profound changes for the city, but all they have is a few sentences on a historical marker.

In some ways, building a memorial park is easier than securing one of those prized markers, because the former is often just a real estate proposition. Which brings me to my next concern.

Central business districts thrive through density. In 2012, Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote that the lack of development on Market Street between 21st and 23rd was keeping “Center City from completing the last, crucial step in its revival: the fusing of downtown with West Philadelphia’s universities.” Prior to the collapse, those blocks were finally exhibiting signs of life, from the addition of the Murano to the opening of Trader Joe’s. In a very literal way, a memorial park could interrupt that momentum. We need dynamism on that corner, not solemnity.

And would we get solemnity anyway? I’m picturing cigarette butts, pigeon crap, and the post-lunch detritus of french-fry crumbles and balled-up foil. Is it even the best way to pay tribute in this case? There are other, more meaningful ways to memorialize such tragedies.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society presented design concepts with plenty of trees for the park in April. I hope the space will be vital rather than somber. But as long as we’re talking, how about a memorial park near 62nd and Osage? There’s lots of tree cover out that way already.

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  • PhillyThrowAway

    I’m using a name that doesn’t connect me to my usual online persona because I’m in an unfortunate position of both living within a block of this site and being friends with a family member of one of the deceased from this collapse. I agree with every point made here, and I find it incredibly unfortunate that this park idea was just pushed through with seemingly little thought to its long-term impact in a quickly-developing area as well as being out of touch for the scale of the disaster. Sadly, holding the position that there shouldn’t be a park here seems heartless, but objectively, this is not what should be here.
    A new 7-11 has since opened across the street. Coupled with the trolley and bus stops here, this park will turn into what the rear of the old Salvation Army was: trash-strewn and full of agressive panhandlers. Is that how the families of the deceased want their loved ones remembered? To say nothing of other tragedies in the city- where is the memorial park for the firefighters killed in the Buck Hosiery collapse? A marker, a bench, a plaque…these are all more appropriate, better for the neighborhood, and more in line with how tragedies of this nature have been handled in Philadelphia. The Meridian lot isn’t a park: those 3 firefighters killed are remembered with a memorial.
    It is nothing short of horrifying that this accident happened, and it highlighted the failure of the city in inspecting these types of construction projects. The best legacy the deceased can leave is a better-functioning L&I to prevent something like this from happening again. I can understand and sympathize with the families for wanting to remember their lost loved ones, but this is not the correct way to do that.

  • NateFried

    I’m in favor of the park…just not the one they proposed. I mean.. what’s that half circle thing anyway? How bout making it a nice park like the John f collins park?

    As for the idea that this little sliver of a park is going to prevent the development of the area and should instead be used for density? Look at how skinny that park lot is. Its the width of a town home. If the neighborhood won’t let a skyscraper get built on a larger lot at 19th and chestnut, how are they going to get approval to build high density at 22nd and market? And even if they consolidated some of that land… there is a VERY strong chance that there would be some sort of patio or “front step” to a larger building that would probably be the same size as this park.

    This park won’t prevent density from coming here. If they want to plan for the future… just put in a requirement that the weird cattle fence should be removed when a bigger building is built next to it, to allow it to act as a pleasant entrance way to a future development. Make sure there are provisions that let a future developer of the lot next door to integrate their design right up against the park, utilizing the park as almost an extension of a future development.

    We aren’t talking about taking a HUGE property and turning it green. We are talking about taking a sliver on the edge of a potential development site and keeping it green… in a section of center city that is actually lacking any pocket parks anyway!

    To appease those of you who think it should be developed… I would say they should just give a proviso that the park can be integrated into the design of a new tower that may end up there eventually.

    • DTurner

      I agree, I’m not against the park idea, but I’d like to see something that is more of a park than memorial and run by CCD.

    • connie d.

      the size of the property isn’t the problem, as you have noted that it isn’t a “huge Property,” but, any open lot or park stops the walker from going further. you don’t see many parks in an economic area for that reason. it’s a psychological thing.
      a busy building that contributes to the neighborhood’s economic life is an honorable way to remember those who died.

  • MB

    The collapse was tragic, no question. The right response is to fill the space with a quality mixed use building: retail/living space. Not a behemoth, but something that fits with the surroundings. Use it to bring revenue dollars into the city, create some competition to lure additional business to the area. The park is a nice thought but that too will likely be a neglected weed-filled corner over time. Dedicate the building to the tragedy.

  • 22ndStPhillyGuy

    I agree 100%. I was a citizen (I am not with the PFD or PPD) first responder to this event. I spent several days on site working it. I see absolutely NO benefit from this proposal. I feel for the families, really I do. I was there when every single body bag was brought out. I was there when the last victim was found. I have no desire whatsoever of walking past a “park” that will simply serve to collect litter, and other debris. We also all know that, once this park is place, the families and people involved with this “park” will complain and want to have a say over anything that is built next to it. They will want to have design approval and everything else. We ALL konw that is going to happen. I wish we could STOP the park movement.

  • It’s About Time

    The idea of putting a memorial park there is one of the worst ideas ever in this city, and that is saying something. What happened there was a tragedy, and those who died or were injured were victims. The dead should be mourned and the injured cared for. The rest of us should move on. We are not a nation of martyrs, though it seems more and more like that is what we are becoming. Soon we will close down streets where fatal accidents occur.

  • FixTheProblemDon’tCoverIt

    How about increasing measures that prevent building collapses from happening again instead of a park? That’s the best way to remember the lost.

  • philly girl

    I agree with PhillyThrowAway – sites of unfortunate incidents should not be made into parks. If that was the case, every corner of every major city would have a park. Also, the park will only turn into another site for trash and panhandlers. Please Philly – be smart about this one!

  • Ray Kerstetter

    why not have a development that incorporates a memorial? Have a mini-mall with a memorial tree in an atrium with a small plaque dedicated to the victims. That way, it would be enclosed,so no way panhandlers would congregate, no trash or pigeons. Win win situation.

  • Bob

    Great stuff, Liz. Put a marker up and call it a day. A park is a complete overreaction.

  • jonline

    I agree. A park is a horrendous idea. It’s a moment in time not a time to remember forever

  • Bob Dobolino

    That’d be great, maybe the City can put some teddy bears and candles out there each week. Idiots. How about getting rid of “expediters” who shepherd things through L&I for a fee? Because that’s how that demo permit was pulled. Did the City get rid of expediters? Nope.

  • jt

    Tragic event and sorry for the loss of life but forget the park idea. That corner’s prime real estate and worth a bundle and should be built upon by a developer who knows how to maximize the space and maximize the return to the citizens of PHL.

  • Charles

    It will be a nice little pocket park, albeit with a somber origin. We don’t have enough green spaces downtown. Welcome addition. Soon enough, people will be eating their lunches there. Really, would you prefer another RiteAid or similar corner retail space?