The Central Delaware waterfront is a seven-mile stretch of postindustrial wastes, remnant port uses, big-box stores, planned casinos, and decaying piers—a daunting swath for planners hoping to remake Philadelphia’s eastern flank. “The toughest problem so far is just the scale of the place,” said Alexander Cooper, founding partner of Cooper, Robertson & Partners. “The Delaware River is not like the Schuylkill. It’s a big, wide, commercial body of water with another state on the other side.”
Late last year, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC) named New York–based Cooper, Robertson as part of the team to develop a masterplan for the area, along with landscape architecture firm Olin, architects KieranTimberlake, and economic analysts HR&A Advisors. At the same time, the DRWC is charging ahead on designs for a pier near the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, plus a trail that will open public access to the long-blockaded riverfront.
In awarding the $1 million masterplan contract, the DRWC looked to the site’s industrial past as a key to its rebirth. “For waterfronts we’ve worked on, the predominant land use tends to be residential,” Cooper said. “People here are much more interested in job creation, and that’s tough in this economy.” Other challenges include the fact that 95 percent of waterfront parcels are privately owned, meaning that the team will likely pursue land swaps to facilitate the area’s redevelopment.
Throughout the year-long process, Cooper will rely on Olin and KieranTimberlake, both based in Philadelphia, for their understanding of the site, which stretches from Allegheny to Oregon avenues and from the river to I-95. They’ll also need to anticipate a high-speed transit corridor on the water side of the highway, whose precise alignment is now being studied by federal officials. The rail line should help unify the waterfront and, with its spur into central Philadelphia, offer a needed link to the river.
Designers have a head start in a 2007 vision plan developed by Wallace Roberts & Todd and PennPraxis. “Through the process of the PennPraxis plan, there’s a greater awareness in Philadelphia of the river having a public component,” said Sarah Thorp, masterplanning manager at the DRWC, noting that a new zoning overlay calls for a 100-foot waterfront setback. “The master-plan needs to go through on a parcel-by-parcel basis and figure out how to execute that open-space network.”
For now, projects on tap include James Corner Field Operations’ designs for Pier 11, now known as the Race Street Pier, expected to open by 2011. And design-build proposals are being studied for a parcel at Pier 53, linking to a trail that should increase access from South Philadelphia. That $570,000 project, which Thorp said will “clean and green” the pier’s upland area, is due to open this summer.