There's one thing on which everyone agrees about the South Street Bridge: The old stone span is dying. Bits of it regularly fall into the river and onto the highway below. It won't last another winter, declared a couple of engineers from the city's Streets Department at a recent community meeting. It's got to be closed. And time, they stressed, is of the essence.
Everyone agrees that the old bridge is a hazard. But what is disagreeable to architect Jim Campbell — and about 80 neighbors who met recently — is its replacement. And they don't understand the rush to rebuild.
The city wants to replace the old span with a '50s-style overpass, whose five lanes will serve as a truck route and as a traffic "stacker" to feed the highway below. It's an interstate. Bicyclists and walkers are an afterthought, and pedestrian access to the park below will be limited.
South Street neighbors spent a recent Saturday morning at the Philadelphia School trying to come up with alternatives.
The neighbors didn't want an interstate emptying into their two-lane streets. But the two city engineers were adamant: This is the design they have, and the city is in a hurry. They said the city expects to bid the job by the end of March and start the teardown by July. In 18 months, there will be a new bridge.
An ugly, dysfunctional bridge, complained neighbors, who are upset that they seem to be out of time.
"If it takes a couple more months, would it matter?" neighbors asked.
Yes, replied the engineers. They also acknowledged that the construction was going to cost about a third more than it necessarily had to.
A number of people at the meeting believed that the bridge is being rushed, and the extra expense incurred, to accommodate the University of Pennsylvania's schedule.
"You mean the University wants to ram through this bridge in time for their 2010 Spring Relays?" raged one man.
The city engineers say that the project is being rushed because of the bridge's condition, and that the extra cost is for nighttime construction, which will minimize traffic problems.
"I specifically clarified [at the meeting] that the city's schedule is driven by safety," e-mailed engineer David Perri. "We are mindful of U of P's graduation schedule and the Penn Relays, but those events do not drive our schedule."
It would be nice if Penn were as "mindful" of the community. Campbell says he invited the school to this official community forum. No one showed.
"If there's one thing I'd like to ask [Penn president] Amy Gutmann, it is, 'Why do you have to be in such a hurry?'" said Campbell, who believes Penn is behind the rush.
For now, if you ask the University anything about the primary bridge that serves their campus and hospital, you won't get much of an answer.
I asked Ron Ozio, Penn's director of media relations, if the University was pushing things, and if we're paying a premium as a result.
"The University has never been officially approached about the South Street Bridge," replied Ozio.
"Officially approached?" I repeated.
"It's not our bridge," Ozio said, "and therefore we have no comment."
Whatever plans are in place, it's time for the new mayor to give this new bridge another, hard look.
I asked Nutter's press secretary, Doug Oliver, for a comment about all of this.
"The Mayor understands the concerns of the parties on both sides of the issue," Oliver e-mailed. "He is also aware that time is of the essence."
Maybe not, Mr. Mayor. Maybe we should all take a nice long breath. Because the bridge the city builds today will either help us or haunt us for a very long time.