The process of reclaiming the North

 

Live news from the North design (team leader Peter Latz)

9:27 a.m.: Peter Latz arrives at the Seaport Museum a little late, a little under the weather from a cold, but already with the seeds of a plan – metaphorically and literally – for reviving the northern Delaware waterfront. On the back of a restaurant flyer, he has drawn a rough map of the area, and a series of circles with lines projecting out. He describes the circles as bulbs, or onions – the nuclei of ideas that will flower into the neighborhoods. The whole plan for each neighborhood will be inside each bulb. They will take root not with investments, but as “real public places,” Latz says.

The bulbs are “totally abstract” for now, but the North team embraces the concept immediately.

Laura Lanza, a Port Richmond civic leader, asks how they bulbs will work with each neighborhood.

They will be different at each location, Latz says. One will be like a tulip, another a chrysanthemum, another an iris.

And the river can act as the nutrient, adds Nando Micale, an urban designer with WRT.

10:45: The North team has divided up into subteams to plot out Latz’s vision of a garden.

Aerial  photos go up on the walls, laptops open up, maps are laid out, boxed of colored pencils and markers are broken open.

The bulbs will be planted at seven locations: at the foot of the ancient creek bed of Cohocksink Creek, a stream long buried but still running; at the state-owned riparian property where the SugarHouse casino is planned at Shackamaxon Street; at the old Peco power station adjacent to the jewel of Penn Treaty Park; at the site of the old Cramp’s shipyard; at the former ore-coal pier; at the foot of Lehigh Avenue, where the state has long imagined a greenway connecting river to river; and at Pulaski Park at the foot of Allegheny Avenue.

Latz asks that each team member add his name to a tab designating the sites and where the bulbs will begin.

By 10:30, a map of the North region depicts the start of the garden; multi-colored bulbs sending shoots into the neighborhoods, and leaves connecting one site to another.

For the next 90 minutes, the teams will work on what will spring from the bulbs.

12:51: Before breaking for lunch, the subteams of the North team got down to details. And their drawings took on new dimensions.

The group working on the Peco plant/Penn Treaty site are creating their vision on aerial photos on their computer screens. The old power plant is now surrounded by green space that creeps in between buildings. Another section is being envisioned as a cogeneration plant and bio-reactor, reflecting Peter Latz’s request to use existing structures in new, cleaner ways.

The subteam creating a greenway near Lehigh Avenue is developing what urban designer Nando Micale calls a “21st century industrial park,” where people can work, live and recreate. The plan includes bringing the river back toward the land by creating freshwater areas for boating between existing piers, which may still be used for light industrial purposes. There is space for high-density housing as well. And bike paths are planned linking the entire area along the riverbank.

The group reinventing the Pier 18 area are turning the industrial landscape into a patchwork quilt. Blocks of a gardens, manicured lawns and rows of new trees are interspersed among the dead areas, the contaminated sites that could be covered with raked cinders. The idea is to marry the decaying spots and dormant plots with vibrant acres in between.

Architect Kiki Bolender is on the floor redrawing the site around the planned SugarHouse casino. “We’re blasting into the site,” Bolender says, by surrounding the casino with rowhouses to the south and an island of condo towers to the north. Farther inland there could be retail businesses and homes. And the river itself will be invited in between the condo towers and the casino. The towers cast a shadow over the casino, Bolender points out.

5:20 p.m.: From the post-lunch comparisons of team plans until shortly before dinner, the North group tackled the issue they had avoided in the morning: They waded into the traffic.

I-95 is a tough barrier today to any plans for reconnecting to the riverfront, Latz pointed out, and it only gets worse.

PennDot representative Elaine Elbich confirmed that to a degree. There are parts of the interstate the can’t wait for repairs, and lanes will be added to other sections in the near future. In addition, the Girard Avenue interchange is about to undergo reconstruction.

And before all of that gets under way, Latz noted, there are places in the northern central Delaware area where there are no cross streets, no ways to get from the riverfront to the river ward neighborhoods.

For the next few hours, those were the problems the North team would deal with.

Different solutions would be needed for each site where Latz’s concept of bulbs would be planted.

Probably the easiest section is bounded by Spring Garden Street and Penn Treaty Park. Fishtown resident and artist Jeremy Beaudry led the group that enhanced plans for key pedestrian intersections, at Spring Garden Street leading to the existing festival pier; where the long-buried Cohocksink Creek emerges from the river and meanders beneath Canal Street; the Frankford Avenue/Laurel Street/Delaware Avenue intersection; and the two intersections at the ends of Penn Treaty Park.

The work still to be done in that neighborhood, Beaudry said, is what happens under I-95.

Urban designer Nando Micale worked on the “pretzel,” also known as the Diamond Interchange. With the goal of reconnecting the river to the neighborhoods, Micale offered short-term improvements that would open roads from the neighborhoods to the riverfront, and what may be a 50-year plan that would reconfigure where exit and entrance ramps drop down to the grade level.

Susan Davis, an architect with the Redevelopment Authority, helped bring access to the light industrial area where the river-to-river Greenway is planned. PennDot is already planning to widen an existing access road through the old industrial site, and the team’s proposal would create feeds off that road through what may become big-box manufacturing or retail. A green belt along the shoreline, meanwhile, will connect the open spaces along the edge of the entire site. Cars would continue to have limited access, but bikes and hikers would have a long, continuous journey. 

8:10 p.m. In the final hours of Friday’s intensive planning session, the North team put finishing touches on what will be its public presentation on Saturday.

Urban planner Brian Henrich, of the City Planning Commission, did a redesign of the festival pier/incinerator site, keeping it all as open space framed by trees.

An alternative version of the Girard Avenue interchange on I-95 was polished, reconfiguring its ramps to ensure better connectivity to the neighborhoods and the riverfront and possibly preserving the old Cramp’s shipyard building.

City planner Dave Schaaf drew vignettes, showing how specific sites throughout the North industrial landscape could become more livable and walkable.

Penn architecture student Abdallah Tabet prepared the images for the PowerPoint presentation: on his computer screen, the proposed Trump Tower towered, parks surrounded the SugarHouse casino, and as yet unbuilt housing lined the riverfront.

After 12 hours of work, the North team was satisfied with what it had accomplished today.

“We achieved a lot,” designer Nando Micale said.

All the teams had faced “an immensely complicated sets of problems,” explained Penn historian Steve Conn. “But the level of consensus has really been quite high.”

Tomorrow, Conn expects a variety of reactions. “This is Philadelphia — if we promised everyone a 20-dollar bill when they came, they’d complain.”

But the teams’ “big ideas will be enthusiastically received,” he predicted.

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