Waterfront Q&A with design experts
Five of the world’s top experts in landscape and urban design will be here March 1-3 to help Philadelphians decide how to reshape the Delaware River waterfront.
The public is invited to join Penn Praxis for the public presentation of these first renderings from the design teams Saturday, March 3, 3-5 p.m. at the Independence Seaport Museum.
The experts joining this effort:
• Peter Latz, professor and chair of landscape architecture and planning at the Technical University Munich-Weihenstephan, who has gained widespread recognition for innovative planning to reclaim outdated industrial sites with an eye toward ecology and societal needs. His work has been published and exhibited internationally, and was recently featured as part of the renowned “Groundswell” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Latz was the 2001 recipient of the Grande Medaille d’Urbanisme from the Academie d’Architecture, its highest prize; and winner of the first European Rosa Barba Prize for Landscape Architecture in 2000. http://www.latzundpartner.de/index.htm
• Walter Hood, professor and former Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, known for his unique approach to the design of urban landscapes. He has worked extensively in a variety of settings, most recently in designing the landscape for the Autry National Museum in Los Angeles, the landscape design for The Menil Collection in Houston, and the archeological gardens at the University of Virginia. Hood has also exhibited and lectured on his project and theoretical works nationally and abroad. http://www.wjhooddesign.com/home.html
• Architect and urban designer Ken Greenberg, former director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto, who has several award-winning projects in highly diverse urban settings throughout the United States and Canada. Much of his work has concentrated on rejuvenating downtown districts, waterfront areas and city neighborhoods, particularly the Toronto waterfront. http://greenbergconsultants.com
• Denise Scott Brown, principal of the world-renowned Philadelphia firm Venturi Scott Brown & Associate, is an architect, planner and urban designer whose work and ideas have influenced architects and planners globally. She is a respected theorist, educator and scholar whose 40-year career has encompassed a broad range of interdisciplinary work and projects in architectural design, urban design and campus planning. www.vsba.com
• Gary Hack, Dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design and its Paley Professor of City and Regional Planning. He has designed development plans for more than 30 cities in the United States and abroad, including the Prudential Center in Boston, Rockefeller Park in New York City, and the Metropolitan Plan for Bangkok, Thailand. A former chair of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Hack was a member of the team that won the design competition for redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. http://www.design.upenn.edu/new/about/letter.htm
PlanPhilly was able to ask three of these experts about their views on key aspects of the waterfront redevelopment. Here is what they said:
PlanPhilly: How do you meld diverse desires for the waterfront, such as maintaining the working port, allowing public access and recreation, and commercial and residential development into a single vision for the project?
DENISE SCOTT BROWN: This can’t happen in a design charrette (PennPraxis has scheduled three-days of design charrettes – meetings at which experts and residents in attendance will give their ideas to designers, who will then create visuals of the ideas). Urban design and planning needs time and working with a community. What we do is we list all of those goals. Here they are – and some may be in conflict. We show alternative means for achieving the goals (often three alternatives are shown.) Some alternatives might stress certain goals over others. (For example, an alternative might) meet Goal 1 very well, but meet Goal 5 poorly. Then we show the community these three alternatives – This one stresses the productive port more than residential. This one says trails and pathways are so important that everything else has to stand down. We show three, we ask the community to vote. Usually, they ask, “Couldn’t you put alternative two and three together?” The first three are never the last ones. (It’s about prioritizing and compromising and building consensus. Sometimes you come up with something that meets a goal no one had even thought of before, and that emerges as the favored plan.) That can be very exciting when something comes out of it that no one expected, and that’s what they love most.
KEN GREENBERG: The first step is to understand each of those desires or objectives. You have to understand each of the components or elements pretty well within its own terms. You then need to look at combinations of different factors. At the end of the day, the best solution is one where nothing is achieved to perfection, but the overall result is better than what any single objective on its own would be. This will be a very cooperative effort. I’ll be working on a team with a lot of people who know the area very well.
GARY A. HACK: The varied things people want don’t have to be on one stretch of land. We have 6 miles. We can clearly accommodate a lot of different things. Undoubtedly, there will be some places where competing interests will occur. On those, we will take our cues from the views expressed in meetings, and the planners and designers’ analyses.
Our first steps on this whole process have to include understanding the sentiments that emerged from the public meetings, and understanding the scope of possible change along the length of the waterfront. Who owns what land and what commitments have been made? Which portions are open for change along the waterfront? We have to get on top of those two things to make intelligent plans.
I don’t start with the presumption that the waterfront is a nest of conflicts. We need to begin with the aspirations people have for the area, and see if we can accomplish all of them. These include the wishes the public has expressed, but also landowners who have aspirations for their sites, and designers who will be part of the charrette will also have ideas.
We’re going to cook a bouillabaisse that has all of those ingredients in it. Maybe some pieces can’t change – there may be some projects in the pipeline where commitments have been made and need to be respected. It may be possible to fine-tune them. But it is not a clean slate – it is a slate on which many people have chalked in their preferences already.
PP: How do you approach such a large project – 7 miles of waterfront – while keeping the scale of individual elements realistic or true-to-form?
SCOTT BROWN: I think one of the ways is you have to bring to it much more than just the views of an architect. (Brown said she would expect to work with water engineers, landscape architects, regional scientists who look at the economy of the entire region, environmentalists, transportation engineers and urban planners.)
An architect tends to think of it like a room, think of it like putting furniture in a room. But if you think of it as an urbanist, an urban planner, you see the project as a set of systems.
There is a very big ecological system, a big waterway– and not only the water way, but water run off that leads into the waterway, and the land-water relationship. And there are different forms of that relationship depending where you are (along the 7-miles).
The next (system) is that a city is a set of activities. There are millions of people all acting together, all doing their thing…living there, working there, manufacturing there. (And so) the pattern of activities, pattern of land uses, is another piece. That is absolutely intertwined with the pattern of movement. And these tie in with the waterway, the water management plans.
Along a lot of the waterfront (are systems) of industrial land and wharves – old, inherited ones, many no longer functioning (but also) some ongoing ones. I’m very interested in understanding how the patterns are changing right now and where the nuclei of intense activity is right now. Where are the marketplaces? Anytime two major roads are crossing, that’s a good place for a marketplace. (When you see where those are) you begin to see ways in which to think of the future moving (forward) from.
There would be areas of intensity and less intensity along the waterfront. I believe in growing a new plan out of existing patterns, and also new needs. The physical form should come out of this kind of understanding and need. If we do our mapping carefully, our analysis carefully, (we will be) able to grow a design from within.
GREENBERG: Those coming from elsewhere will rely on the thought the community has already put into this. We are not starting from zero – a great deal of work has already been done on the goals, objectives and concepts. But this is scaleable. We need to think about the whole network and its different parts. I don’t yet know enough about that specific area, but (generally speaking) there are two things that I am always mindful of. One is the play of time – these major transformations don’t happen all at once, they unfold over a significant period of time. We have to think about next year, two years from now, five years from now. It goes from being a snapshot to being a moving picture where you are not just focused on and end stage.
Secondly, this is ultimately (about) places where, as a human being, I can see putting myself into – going there to enjoy them, live there, work there, see something cultural. I have to see them not just as abstractions, but as actual places. (So it’s about more than imagining what places will look like- it’s also about what it would feel like to be there.)
HACK: The waterfront will need some consistent elements that make it uniquely Philadelphia, but it is large enough that each segment of the waterfront can have unique qualities.
When we planned the West Side Waterfront in New York, we argued that each community along the way ought to have an open space that met their needs, and should include uses that capitalized on the unique potentials of each area. Each section was designed by a different designer, while the waterfront boulevard, which ties the entire area together, is consistent along its length.
PP: How do you cope with the reality of the things you cannot change, such as casinos and I-95?
SCOTT BROWN: It is hard to say how to do that a priori. Will casinos bring a whole pile of traffic? I would ask a transportation engineer to be specific about that – how much? Is it a big problem, or is it smaller than we think it will be?
If they generate a whole lot of people, there would tend to be urban growth around them. If that is desirable, how can we channel it? Or should local residents not be disturbed (by that kind of growth)? We need to see. Fact-finding before we look at this with alarm is a good idea?
There are places where there are activity centers near parts of where I-95 is raised, and we could develop under the road and to the waterway (to create) some kind of urban nucleus. I would be looking to see (if that is already happening anywhere) – I would imagine if it is a good idea it is already happening. I know there are some places, there is one in Kensington, where a lot of roads meet and there are commercial land uses around there. From there, you could rather easily pass under I-95 to the waterfront. That’s a place where waterfront development has gone ahead fast or if it hasn’t, it could.
(Brown said a quick study would be done looking and goals, options, issues and problems. That overview would be presented to the community for feedback. That feedback would show the design experts what other things should be looked at that they had not thought of.)
GREENBERG: Typically, you start off with a set of constraints, you try to understand where the strengths and weaknesses are, and where the opportunities may be. Any design happens within that framework. But in something as open ended as (these charrettes, where all will be encouraged to dream big without considering limitations at first) a designer may end up challenging some of those constraints. (The designers might ask people to imagine the riverfront as if it were possible to remove any impediment to the project goals.)
HACK: There is a big debate about what to do with the casinos. Some members of the public oppose them, while others believe they will add life to currently empty parts of the waterfront. I think we need to plan the waterfront that can accommodate the casinos, but also make a contingency plan that indicates how the gaps would be filled if one or more casinos are not developed.
On the issue of I-95, there are both long- and short-term dimensions to the puzzle. The short term issues are how to get across it, how to minimize the impact on people’s enjoyment to the waterfront, and how you maximize its potential as sites for possible development. It is possible to put a deck over some of it – stretches of it are already decked in Society Hill. That’s intermediate term.
The longer term question is if you were to replace that roadway, what would you replace it with? At some point, the roadway will wear out. Roadways tend to have a life of about 40 years, and I-95 is already past its half-life. It is important to have a viable scheme to replace it with something more sensitive to the surroundings.
Any plan has to have a time dimension – short term things that can be accomplished immediately, intermediate things that take more time and resources, and what we should be thinking about in the long term.
Short-term things must be done with the longer-term in mind. You don’t want to preclude the long-term goals with what you do (now).
A number of cities have looked at the question of whether their large roadways are needed over the long future. Every city is different.
Portland took down its waterfront highway and New York replaced the West Side Highway with a boulevard. Seattle is debating the removal of the Alaskan Way. I-95, which stretches from Key West to Houlton, Maine may be more difficult to eliminate, but it certainly could be integrated into the urban fabric better than the current highway.
PP: How much does the history of the riverfront play into/influence a design?
SCOTT BROWN: Industrial history is so special in Philadelphia, but it is not very well known. We’re very aware of our colonial history. Philadelphia was the biggest heavy industry center in the whole world at the end of the 20th century – that’s a very proud time, and some of those structures still remain, and some of the infrastructure of the relationships between housing, rail, industry and river.
(Brown said she would want to preserve some of it.) There are creative ways of reusing industrial buildings. You could reuse them for a more modern purpose. Particularly the ones that are related to water could be residential lofts. (Brown said office space would not be likely, as there is so much unused office space in center city already.) Even things like casinos – (probably not for the main buildings because they are so specialized, but for parts of a complex). Power stations make great art museums. They have big, high spaces that are great for high sculptures and changing shows.
GREENBERG: In a word, enormously. There is so much energy in what has come before. We really need to understand the history, and the process that brought us to the present so that we can take the artifacts present, the structures, and weave them into a new future.
HACK: To start with, some things there now are historical. There are piers that are important, and have some functionality or potential to be re-used for new activities. Buildings and artifacts are nice to preserve and reuse as a reminder of what the waterfront was once. One could imagine an ecological restoration of a portion of the edge of the waterfront, returning them to the natural state that they once had, and helping clean the water as it flows along its course. There are lots of dimensions of history that can be incorporated one way or another into this plan.
PP: What interested you in this project?
SCOTT BROWN: I’ve been thinking about this problem for a long, long time.
GREENBERG: It seems extremely intriguing, and it’s a chance to work with top-level colleagues.
HACK: This is one of the last undeclared waterfronts in a major American city – in part because we have waited so long to do a comprehensive plan. This is one of the last, great opportunities to create a 21st Century waterfront.
It is an honor, and also a wonderful pleasure, to help people envision what should happen to this waterfront.
(Through work Hack did with waterfronts in other cities, he has learned that every city’s waterfront needs are very different and a plan must address what makes Philadelphia’s waterfront special.) Developing a uniquely Philadelphian waterfront is part of the fun. That’s the real challenge.
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