New Pier Park in Philadelphia “Packs a Wallop”

In The Philadelphia Enquirer, Marilyn Jordan Taylor, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, said the new one-acre, 540-foot long, $6.5 million pier park designed by James Corner Field Operations “packs a wallop” and changes the “central Delaware riverfront from an overlooked backwater into the front door to our city and region.” Formerly called “Municipal Pier 11,” the renamed “Race Street Pier” was first built in 1896 on multiple levels that served different functions: the lower level provided infrastructure for shipping while the top deck was used off and on recreationally. To retain the site’s past, Field Operations also split the new park into two levels. There’s an upper level with a “sky promenade” and a lower level for social gatherings. 

Jordan, who is the chairwoman of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the nonprofit that manged the transformation of the riverfront, said the new pier park signals that the bottom-up, citizen-led and PennPraxis-facilitated master planning process the city just went through to redesign its riverfront largely works. Also, the Race Street pier provides a model for how to develop other old piers. “Indeed, the pier provides a catalyst for spurring high-quality development on nearby parcels. We know from cities across the country that high-quality public spaces spur private development, and the pier’s thoughtful design should raise the bar for developers along the riverfront to create a new neighborhood that follows best practices for pedestrian-friendly, green, sustainable, urban architecture.” Other projects underway will also improve connectivity to the waterfront and create more parks (see earlier post). 

Inga Saffron, architecture critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, who gave the park a rave review, started with its connectivity with the rest of the city. “The park is easily accessible from Center City and the adjacent neighborhoods by foot, bike, and car (although the transit options aren’t so good). When visitors arrive, they can enter the park from a real urban sidewalk on a real urban street. As they proceed along the 540-foot pier, the powerful design ensures that they are thoroughly immersed in the experience of being on the river.”

The park itself “feels far more spacious than its diminutive size would suggest. The designers manage to squeeze in a boardwalk, a lawn, a small amphitheater, a bosque of trees, meandering paths, and plenty of benches by manipulating the surface topography.” James Corner, ASLA, Field Operations’ founder, explained to Saffron that the park functions like a “natural landscape. The pier contains multiple ecosystems.”

Corner and Field Operations associate Lisa Tziona Switkin organized the pier on a diagonal. “A row of 25-foot-tall swamp oaks, which were acquired as surplus from the ground zero memorial project in New York, marks that diagonal line, which also serves to exaggerate the perspective and draw the eye toward the water.” In addition, the varied landscape “creates intimate nooks, such as the amphitheater steps at the far end of the pier, where visitors can kick back with a book, a beach blanket, or a laptop. Equipped with Wi-Fi, this is a 21st-century park where people can come to be alone and together at the same time.”

While the High Line (Field Operations’ major New York City project) was criticized for its widespread use of Ipe, a hardwood harvested from rainforests, the Race Street Pier introduces Trex, a “sustainable synthetic decking material made out of reclaimed plastic and wood,” says Plan Philly. It’s not clear what kind of wood the benches and rails are made of though. In addition, more than 10,250 individual 4-inch pots of “shade-tolerant grasses and perennials” were planted in steel planters. The lighting design also presents a more sustainable option: Embedded into the paving are “200 LED solar light blocks.”

Learn more about the park and see more images.

Image credits: Race Street Pier Park / Plan Philly

One thought on “New Pier Park in Philadelphia “Packs a Wallop”

  1. Kevin Derrick 06/07/2011 / 1:35 pm

    “A row of 25-foot-tall swamp oaks, which were acquired as surplus from the ground zero memorial project in New York”

    Great info to know and share… But did the High Line benefit from any of these surplus trees as well?

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