Independence Mall Undergoes Biggest Overhaul Since 1976

Tue December 03, 2002 - National Edition

PHILADELPHIA (AP) They call the neighborhood around Independence Mall the most historic square mile in America, but lately it looks more like the most secure construction site.

Ringed by chain-link fences and concrete barriers, the mall has become an unrecognizable tangle of bulldozers, naked I-beams and muddy pits in recent months as it undergoes its biggest overhaul since the nation’s bicentennial.

The projects include a visitors center near Independence Hall, a museum about the Constitution and a new gallery for the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Once complete, Independence Mall will have been transformed from an open, and largely empty grassy park, to an assemblage of museums and historic sites that officials hope will rival the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

"It’s great for tourism. It is going to bring more people into the area," said Jeff Glassberg, who lives near the park and is chairman of the Olde City Civic Association’s historic district committee.

The mall is part of Independence National Historical Park — often billed as "the birthplace of our nation." The park includes the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, the site where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were created.

But right now much of the park is a mess, and not everyone is happy about the changes.

Merchants and city officials have criticized the park service’s post-Sept. 11 decision to close a large segment of the mall to pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

The block immediately in front of Independence Hall was formerly open to picnickers and sightseers. Now, it can be reached only through a single, guarded gate and a bank of metal detectors. Cars and buses have been banned from the street directly in front of the hall.

"It’s killed our walk-up traffic. It has been a tremendous blow," said Ann Meredith, president of Lights of Liberty, a nonprofit group that operates a theatrical light show in the park.

With tourists corralled inside the park, patrons can no longer easily get to their ticket office, she said.

The ’76 Carriage Company, which offered horse-drawn carriage rides around the historic district, said it lost 75 percent of its business after construction forced it to move to a less-traveled area.

City officials recently said they had received a new park service proposal to block off an even larger security perimeter, and permanently bar traffic from several city streets.

Frank Keel, a spokesman for Mayor John Street, said doing so would give the mall the feel of an Army encampment.

"One of the great attractions of that whole district is to be able to walk that whole district, and they are talking about creating a gated amusement park," Keel said.

Park Service Spokesman Phil Sheridan said the security plan is still being discussed.

There have been other complaints. Civil rights groups protested construction of new buildings on land once home to George Washington’s slaves. Some planners said constructing many new buildings on the mall would spoil it as a useful park.

Independence Mall itself is relatively new. The city created the park in the 1950s by knocking down dozens of commercial buildings on three large city blocks.

In the latest construction projects, crews are busy erecting the frame of a $9-million museum to replace the glass and concrete pavilion that has sheltered the Liberty Bell since 1976.

Work on a $185-million museum about the U.S. Constitution is under way and an opening is planned for next summer.

A new $38-million visitors center a block north of Independence Hall opened recently. The old National Park Service visitors center, built in 1976, is to be turned into exhibit space.

On Nov. 11, the National Museum of American Jewish History, which sits just off the mall, announced it would build an 80,000-sq.-ft. (7,432 sq m) replacement for its current gallery. The new building would open on the same site in 2006.

More changes could be in the works. Backers are still raising money for yet another building on the mall to house the park’s educational programs.

On Veterans Day, the city gave the park service custodianship of Washington Square, a park near Independence Hall that is the final resting place of 2,000 Revolutionary War soldiers. Plans for how to integrate the park with other historic sites aren’t yet complete.