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04.01.2009
Designs on the Delaware
Philadelphia's Riverfront remake moves ahead

Philadelphia is set to implement a wide-ranging redevelopment of the Delaware River waterfront, based on a plan by PennPraxis.
images courtesy PennPraxis

Like most cities, Philadelphia is scaling back services amid a budget crunch. But despite austere times, the city is moving ahead with long-brewing plans to redesign its Delaware River waterfront with new parks, promenades, and cultural, residential, and commercial uses. In early March, Mayor Michael Nutter and the William Penn Foundation announced a $1 million commitment for planning, design, and construction of the new waterfront, a pledge that followed a $1 million capital commitment from the city.

While the sum might seem trifling, it sets the stage for implementation of an action plan for the Central Delaware developed in 2007 by numerous civic groups, including PennPraxis, the clinical planning and design arm of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. “In the scheme of things, a million dollars is a baby step, but it’s a very important signal of commitment from the foundation community,” said Harris Steinberg, executive director of PennPraxis. “It’s meant to leverage other funds and eventually, to help catalyze the development community.”

The plans call for a mix of uses, from natural settings to man-made developments.

The most important elements of the public access masterplan, which will require approval by the City Council, include acquisition of land for a 200-foot-wide trail and improving access to the waterfront, which is largely inaccessible due to I-95, vast parking lots, and gaps in the street grid. An open RFQ for the masterplan is due for release late this month.

While spurring plans for the entire seven-mile trail and surrounding urban fabric, the funding targets initial design and construction efforts on Pier 11, for which a second RFQ will soon be announced. The one-acre wooden pier, located adjacent to the Ben Franklin Bridge that connects the city to Camden, New Jersey, is envisioned as a demonstration project.


Despite economic uncertainty Mayor Michael Nutter has already allocated city funds to jump-start the process.

“It will be a template for the kind of high-quality public space we’re seeking for the entire waterfront,” Steinberg said. In any event, it will need to be high quality on a budget. According to PennPraxis, the entire budget for the pier project with design fees is $2.5 million. Of that money, more than $1 million is slated for structural improvements to the pier.

Despite the modest budgets, both RFQs are expected to draw broad interest, and that suits Steinberg just fine. “We hope it will be the beginning of a number of spin-off projects,” he said. “This is the first chapter in an ongoing story.”

Alan G. Brake