By Kellie Patrick
Philadelphian Josh Cohen dreams of a Delaware River clean enough to swim in.
“Maybe there’s a life guard watching … there’s a family there,” he said at a Monday night session designed to glean residents’ design desires for the waterfront. “You shouldn’t have to drive an hour and a half to sit by the water.”
But Cohen, who works in real estate and splits his time between Northern Liberties and the Northeast, also has a big dose of Philly pragmatism: “If they can’t get the river clean enough, then they could build a swimming pool, with green grass around it. Then you could at least swim with that view.”
As they did at last week’s design principles development session and another that will be held at 5:30 tonight at Furness High School in South Philadelphia, participants began the evening interviewing each other. Cohen shared his thoughts on the environment with Barbara Benton, a graphic designer who lives in Bella Vista. Participants also asked each other how best to preserve the waterfront’s history and foster economic development, safety and diversity.
During the second part of the evening, participants were divided into groups based on the question they had asked so that a moderator could record all responses. These will be forwarded to a group of designers who will begin sketching out the initial design concepts for a new waterfront next month.
It turned out that many of the 40-some participants shared Cohen’s dream of swimming in the river – something that was done long ago by a certain famous Philadelphian.
“Ben Franklin used to swim right off of Market Street,” said John Connors, the hobbyist historian who was chairman of the Penn Treaty Park Tercentenary Committee in 1982. He now lives in Moorestown, N.J., but is frequently in Fishtown, where his children live.
The would-be swimmers and all other participants say the water and the riverbank must be cleaned, and plans and money need to be in place to keep it that way.
They want to separate storm water from the sewer system, so that hard rains that overwhelm the system don’t send sewage into the Delaware.
Barbara Sprague, an architect who grew up in Center City and now lives in Wayne, suggested pervious pavers so that runoff soaks into the soil. And “there should be facilities for boats to pump out sewage,” she said.
“Public locations which boaters can use with out belonging to a yacht club,” added Barbara Benton.
Any open brown field sites should be cleaned up and made available for public use, said Bill Costello, a graphic designer from Watersedge.
Other environmental ideas included preserving the views of the city that can now be had from the water – particularly from Penn Treaty Park. People want facilities for boating, walking paths and bike paths, and, simply, more trees.
Connors said that since the task is planning for the future, those working on the plan should keep I-95 in mind. “Is there any futuristic way to clean the air of car exhaust?”
Participants said Philadelphia must work with its New Jersey neighbors who share the river to solve environmental problems and enforce existing laws.
Barbara Benton said that careful planning is needed so natural sites can exist harmoniously with other uses – businesses, the port, and maybe even an amusement park for families.
No matter what question participants have been asked, almost everyone talks about improving access to the water.
“Mandate a percentage of open space and green space for any development,” said Barbara Sprague.
Connors spoke of city streets that technically reach the water, but are now fenced off – sometimes illegally.
Costello saw it from another vantage point. He suggested uncovering the smaller creeks and streams that feed into the Delaware, but have been sent through pipes and paved over for development’s sake. That uncovering process is called “daylighting.”
“Instead of bringing people down to the river, you would bring the river to the people by opening up the creeks into the city,” Costello said.
Kellie Patrick formerly covered education for The Philadelphia Inquirer.