PlanPhilly

Faith and Liberty Discovery Center gets initial blessing from Art Commission

Independence Mall is beset by monstrously large buildings that offer no succor to tourists or to human beings of any description. Come for the Liberty Bell stay for, well, maybe the Bourse food court?

One of the mall’s newest tenants, The American Bible Society, hopes to help change that. The religious society rents out two floors of offices in the red brick Wells Fargo building at 5th and Market streets, and will soon be transforming the ground floor into the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center.

This $60 million project seeks to help explain the influence of the Bible on American history. It also hopes to activate the ground floor of the fortress-like Wells Fargo building, improving its interactions with its surroundings.  

At Wednesday’s Art Commission's conceptual review of the proejct, the managing director of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, Patrick Murdock, laid out the Society’s vision with an assist from the project’s architects.

The Center will seek to enliven the underutilized mid-block pedestrian path just to the north of the Wells Fargo building, which connects 4th and 5th streets. The public space will feature a new 14,100 square foot building, a restructured garden, wood benches, and a stage area will cover the delivery ramp that trucks use to access the building’s basement. It could be used for performances or gatherings, open to the public, even when it isn’t being put to official use. All told, the new project covers a total of well over 50,000 square feet. 

The team behind the Center also hopes that the new passageway, christened the Religious Heritage Trail, could also connect to Independence Mall with a fresh crosswalk across 5th Street.

“There are people currently coming across the street at a mid-block crossing that doesn’t exist,” Murdock told the Art Commission. “One of the things we are trying to do is be good neighbors…we all have an interest in seeing that midblock crosswalk and really activating that space.”

Currently this section of 5th Street serves as a speedway for cars approaching the Ben Franklin Bridge. In tandem with SEPTA’s plans to add curb bumpouts on the northwest and southwest corners of 5th and Market as part of its station improvements, a mid-block crosswalk could serve as a traffic calming gesture.

Murdock said that the city is studying the idea of a midblock crossing there. Greater pedestrian connections could, in his opinion, create more opportunities for tourism. If the connections between the historic mall and its surroundings were stronger, perhaps people would be more likely to visit Old City.

“A lot of people are coming to the mall right now doing a Chevy Chase vacation,” said Murdock. “I saw the mall, I saw the bell. But there’s so much more. There is a powerful story here that is hidden and it's part of our goal to connect the dots.”

As part of the plan, two pieces of art that currently occupy the passageway will have to be moved. The “White Water” statute by Robinson Fredenthal is too large to be incorporated into the new plan and negotiations are underway concerning its possible transfer to the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill. The other, “Gift of the Winds” by Joseph C. Bailey, will simply be moved to another part of the site. (The relocation plans are both subject to the approval of the owner, the Miller Investment Group.)

 

The Art Commission seemed pleased with the Bible Society’s proposal, with multiple members denouncing the current building as featuring one of the worst ground floors in the entire city.

“I think this is one of the more deadly buildings in town and I think your plan will activate it in a very positive way,” said Alan Greenberger, chair of the Art Commission. “Not to use them as a stalking horse, but it’s been a bit of a disappointment about the Jewish Museum and its lack of [street-level] activation.”

The Bible Society will also lease the southeast portion of the building to a commercial third party. The Art Commission eagerly kicked around possibilities for the space, hoping out loud for a grocery store or a gastro pub.

But Greenberger cautioned against one tenant in particular: Wawa.   

“Please resist the temptation, because I know Wawa is going to try to come in there,” said Greenberger. “They’ve been pretty aggressive about wanting to present themselves, they are high credit tenants, there are a lot of compelling things about them. I’m just asking you to resist and look at options that are a little more sophisticated and complementary to Old City.”

Murdock paused and said that perhaps they should talk later.  “You are a smart guy, Alan,” he said, lending serious credence to the idea that Wawa is interested in the space.  

In other words: Touch screen hoagie service could too be coming soon to 4th and Market.

    • Rendering of Faith and Liberty Discovery Center north garden, SaylorGregg. | May 2017 Art Commission
      Rendering of Faith and Liberty Discovery Center north garden, SaylorGregg. | May 2017 Art Commission
    • Site plan for Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, SaylorGregg. | May 2017 Art Commission
      Site plan for Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, SaylorGregg. | May 2017 Art Commission
    • Rendering of Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, SaylorGregg. | May 2017 Art Commission
      Rendering of Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, SaylorGregg. | May 2017 Art Commission
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About the author

Jake Blumgart, Reporter

Jake Blumgart is PlanPhilly's planning, development, and housing reporter. He covers the city's built environment and the people who live and work there. He lives in Cedar Park and has also contributed to Slate, CityLab, Next City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine, and the American Planning Association's magazine. Follow him on Twitter @jblumgart and email him at jblumgart@whyy.org.

 


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