Reconnecting Philadelphia to its Riverfront

In one sesssion at the national Brownfields conference, a number of local officials and development organizations discussed how Philadelphia has taken back its riverfront after years of industrial decline. Over the past 300 years, the center city lost its connection to its two rivers, the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers. Railroads, expressways, massive industrial sites, and later, toxic brownfields, acted as a barrier preventing local residents from accessing the rivers. Working with some prominent planners, developers, universities, and landscape architects, the city devised a smart set of plans, designs, and programs for recreating the connection to the river. The goal was to create people-centric, accessible greenways, making the riverfront a core part of the city again.

The History of Philadelphia’s Decline and Rebirth

Larry Silver, a lawyer with Langsam, Stevens & Silver, explained how for years, residents of Philadelphia traveled to the Jersey Shore, despite the fact that the waterfronts of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers are the city’s “real waterfront.” This wasn’t supposed to be like this. William Penn’s vision of the city was a “green country town.” Over the years, the city laid a grid network, and there were trolleys along Market street, with easy access to vibrant commerical and shipping ports. Over time, this “workshop of the world” had transformed its riverfront into one big industrial site.

After World War II, the city experienced a manufacturing decline and all those industrial sites turned into “vacant, derelict properties.”  In addition, the U.S. interstate carved a “path of least resistance” along the east coast. In the case of Philadelphia, the easiest path was through the undeveloped land along the rivers. An eight-lane highway helped sever “neighborhoods from the riverfront.” This highway came at the worst time though with the decline of Philadelphia’s manufacturing base. “This was the start of three decades of decline.” However, with the city slowly moving towards a service-based economy, some wise political decisions helped lay the foundation for riverfront renewal.

The Vision for Schuylkill Banks

Joseph Syrnick, Schuylkill River Development Corporation, said great cities all have great rivers, but other cities have done their waterfronts better. Focusing in on the last eight miles of the Schuylkill river, which passes through more than 20 neighborhoods and under 15 bridges, the new master plan for “Schuylkill Banks“, created in 2002, presents a vision for reconnecting Philadelphia to its waterfront. The plan uses private public partnerships to drive investment in new riverfront access and connectivity, specifically focusing on improving the conditions of the riverbanks and building bike and pedestrian trails.

So far, 1.2 miles of trails out of the 8 mile trail network have been completed. Trails flow through a new bridge over the river, which helps connect the trail network to the rest of the city. The site of the trail passes through the old Dupont Crescent, a “highly contaminated site”, which included soils filled with “testpaints and metals embedded in asphalt.” The development corporation took the hazardous concrete out. “It was barren on the bottom.” New trees and paths were added. 

In an example of a smart reuse of old transportation infrastructure, the development corporation also plans on turning an old abandoned railroad bridge into a new bike path, which will create a single path all the way through to Bartram’s Garden, a historic botanical garden. 

Syrnick said the project has real environmental benefits but also acts as an economic engine.

The Critical Role of the University of Pennsylvania in the Delaware River Revitalization

To ensure the public got a say in what happened to the revitalized Delaware riverfront, the city invited PennPraxis to lead a public process to help determine a vision. In this case, Harris Steinberg at the University of Pennsylvania said his university took on the role of the planning commission.

Before PennPraxis started this initiative, the area had “very little public access and was a hotbed of civic action, a highly contested area.” In the “heady days” before the market crash, there were some 28 big real estate projects planned for the riverfront, none of which provided much public green space or access. The city instead needed a “honest broker and planning partner.”

With a $1.6 million grant from the Penn Foundation, PennPraxis undertook a citizen-driven process. Some 4,000 people contributed ideas, and the planning process led to 150 news stories in the local press. Wallace Roberts & Todd, the landscape architects hired to create the design plans, led a community charrette. “The civic dialogue drove the design plans though,” said Steinberg. The city, as a people together, decided to reconnect the city and watefront and invest in ecological restoration, including new wetlands.  

Steinberg said the public process created a “forcefield” that helped keep “special interests at bay.” This civic forcefield helped prevent the riverfront from being turned into a massive casino with spaces for 10,000 parking lots. Instead, there was a new grid network with 327 acres of green space, trails, and parks every half mile to serve the 100,000 people who live nearby.

Steinberg said the forcefield has held and the new mayor, Michael Nutter, has “embraced all of this whole-heartedly.” A new action plan is in the works and PennPraxis’ recommendation to reform the river development corporation for this part of the city has finally been heeded. Already, James Corner Field Operations is finishing work on Race Street Pier, the newest park on the Delaware river.

North Delaware River Extends the City’s Greenway

North of the Delaware river project Steinberg discussed is a new project to create a north Delaware river greenway. Led by James Corner Field Operations, the project will take a “very industrial landscape,” said Patrick Starr, Pennsylvania Environmental Commission, and recreate a new waterfront with “green and grey infrastructure zipped together.” The design calls for reconnecting the community with the river, extending the street grid almost down to the water’s edge, using ecological restoration techniques to restore the actual river’s edge, and adding new parks throughout. In addition, the area’s new trails will connect with the east coast greenway, which leads up through multiple states.

Starr said the restoration will actually create habitat for targeted individual species. Apparently, parts of the river are a shad run. In addition, once the some brownfields were cleaned up, bald eagles returned. A new point park will feature “inter-tidal wetlands” to provide shoreline habitat for birds and other wildlife. There’s also a broader regional restoration plan that the north Delaware river plan synchs up with.

Lastly, Duane Bumb, City of Philadelphia, noted that work is underway on a new mixed-use community in the old Navy Yards. The project will include laying out seven miles of new trails, preserving and reusing 200 historic buildings, and creating 15-20 million square feet of new office space. The new facilities have already attracted Urban Outfitters, which will bring its headquarters there, along with major pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline. The site is also one of the last functioning shipyards in the U.S. Bumb laughed at the vision of “blue-haired” Urban Outfitter workers having lunch next to weathered ship builders in one of the Navy Yards’ new outdoor cafes.

Image credits: (1) Martin Luther King Drive, Schuylkill Banks, (2) Schuylkill River Banks Connector Path /Schuylkill Banks, (3) Schuylkill Bridge Plans at Grays Ferry / Schuylkill Banks, (4) ASLA 2009 Analysis & Planning Honor Award. A Civic Vision and Action Plan for the Central Delaware River, Philadelphia / Wallace Roberts & Todd, LLC

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