By Matt Blanchard
The campaign to create a master plan for the Central Delaware riverfront took to the airwaves on Wednesday morning as WHYY’s popular Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, featured a discussion of waterfront design with two leaders in the effort.
Gary Hack, dean of Penn’s School of Design, and Harris Steinberg, director of PennPraxis, the applied planning arm of Penn’s School of Design, spoke on public radio for about an hour, fielding questions from Moss-Coane and a half-dozen callers curious about protecting port cargo facilities, and the introduction of mass transit along the river. The 10 a.m. show reaches 150,000 people each week.
But the prime topic of interest was Interstate 95, and the recent proposals for more of its elevated roadbed to be buried in order to reconnect neighborhoods to the riverfront. These proposals came out of the three-day marathon design workshop held by Praxis in early March, and drew considerable press attention at the time. http://www.planphilly.com/node/1163
The essential question was this: Do we really need to tackle it?
“Let’s begin, Harris, if we could, with I-95,” Moss-Coane said, asking Steinberg to explain how the highway affects Philadelphia’s waterfront.
“I-95 is seen as a huge barrier to developing the waterfront,” Steinberg said, describing the 400-foot canyon created by depressed sections of the roadway in Center City, and the elevated sections in neighborhoods to the north and south. “It’s a complicated piece, but it has essentially cut off the neighborhoods from utilizing the riverfront for 25 to 30 years.”
But the idea of modifying I-95 has generated some anxiety that Philadelphia will end up with a version of Boston’s budget-busting “Big Dig” project. Moss-Coane wondered whether the city can’t simply work around the highway, quoting New York City planner Howard Slatkin’s recent comments in Philadelphia that waterfront highways “need not be an insurmountable obstacle.”
Slatkin said: “In New York City, for instance, there are a number of neighborhoods where recent or planned developments respond successfully to highways and bridges near the waterfront – Riverside Park South, the East River Waterfront, DUMBO and Brooklyn Bridge Park, for instance.”
Hack countered that everything depends on the highway in question. Few are as bulky and dominating as I-95. Few provide less in the way of scenic possibilities. “Highways that were built in the 1970s are big lumps of concrete and earth,” he said. “There’s nothing gracious about them, and there’s not much you can do underneath them.”
Later in the hour, a caller from Bala Cynwyd challenged the idea that I-95 must be dealt with, offering Seattle as an example of a city that lives with its elevated highway just fine. “Why does I-95 seem like such a negative?”
Hack answered that while Seattle has found some clever ways to get around its elevated, double-decker “Alaskan Skyway,” the major debate in that city right now is whether to demolish it. Most of the population, Steinberg added, favors demolition.
And Hack outlined real benefits to modifying I-95: Starting at Market Street and going north, if the city were to extend the sunken portion of the roadway for a few thousand feet, as well as bury the elevated ramps to I-676, the project would create more than a dozen blocks of prime development land for housing, parks or offices.
“That would connect not only Old City to the river, but connect the whole of Center City to areas to the north,” Hack said.
“That’s really the thrilling idea that captured the public imagination,” Steinberg added. “During the [Praxis workshop] presentation, when that slide went up, I think there was an audible gasp in the room. The reaction in the press was to that idea. Let’s take the generational challenge and really go for it. Everything else is just Band-Aids.”
Hack and Steinberg also described other cities, such as Boston and New York, which have conquered their highways to create walkable, livable waterfront environments.
“It’s not just a matter of getting people to the waterfront, it’s a question of having them live there,” Steinberg said. “You want people on the street at all hours, you want that dense, residential nature of Rittenhouse Square at places along the waterfront.”
“This is really about re-knitting the neighborhoods back to the river. It’s bringing Fishtown to the river. It’s bringing Pennsport back to the river.”
Steinberg and Hack also fielded questions about mayoral politics, environmental impacts, the importance of high-quality architectural design, affordable housing, mass transit, and a proposal to put a new, pedestrian-friendly Delaware Avenue on top of a buried I-95.
To hear the full show, click http://www.whyy.org/91FM/radiotimes.html