Finding ways to play on our rivers
By Alan Jaffe
The Schuylkill is known for its sculls. The Delaware is known for its scows.
But the industrial traffic on Philadelphia’s eastern river isn’t its only marine activity. The central section of the Delaware actually has plenty of recreational opportunities, though most city residents don’t think of it that way.
There are marinas lined with power boats and sailboats, commanding yachts and personal watercraft. There are duck boats filled with kazoo-tooting tourists. The RiverLink ferry shuttles visitors to and from the Jersey side. The Spirit of Philadelphia carries day- and night-trippers on buffet cruises.
Few people, however, get any closer to the water than a splash from a jet ski.
Activities like canoeing and kayaking are more likely found to the north or south of Philadelphia, or on other waterways to the east or west. But there are sportsmen and women who put paddles in the central Delaware, and there are ways to make it more inviting to weekend warriors. Even swimmers may someday dive into waters between Philly and Camden.
“It’s just a question of will: Does anyone care to make it happen?” said landscape architect Peta Raabe. “It’s not a design problem; it’s a political problem.” If the city is going to continue to grow and thrive, she added, it must find a way to provide access to recreation for the residents who will nurture that growth.
Connecting people to the water will, in turn, help protect the river, according to architect and longtime rower Kiki Bolender. Spending time in a boat fosters a feeling for the river and a sensitivity to pollution and other threats, she said. “You do take it personally. … You just have to get people out on the water.”
Close Cousins and Distant Models
Cities above and below Philadelphia have succeeded in reconnecting to the water. New York’s latest project is Hudson River Park which, when finished, will cover 550 acres from 59th Street to Chambers Street on Manhattan’s West Side. Thirteen former maritime piers are being reconstructed as public spaces that include gardens, overlooks, ball fields, research and educational facilities, picnic spots, and docks for fishing, swimming and boating. A waterfront esplanade will run the length of the park. Boat rides along the Hudson include a children’s cruise and barbeque, a waterfront history cruise, a senior bingo boat ride, and fall foliage cruises.
The Greenwich Village section of the park opened in 2003; parts of Clinton Cove Park opened in 2005. Work on the Tribeca and Chelsea sections began this year.
When Philadelphians talk about waterfronts they’d like to emulate, they usually point toward Baltimore. The Inner Harbor was reborn in the 1970s, and has continued to serve as the heart of tourism in the city, which hosts 12 millions visitors a year.
On the Baltimore waterfront people can catch a water taxi to a series of cultural and historical spots along the harbor. Or they can take a sailing or luxury cruise out to the bay, or exercise their legs on a dragon-headed paddleboat.
Much of Baltimore’s maritime activity is operated not by the city or private enterprise. The moving force is the Living Classroom Foundation (www.livingclassrooms.org), a non-profit that provides educational experiences for in-school and at-risk youth and benefits tourists and the community at large, said director of education Christine Truett. Living Classroom runs the paddleboats used by kids and parents down by Harborplace; the gentle water taxi system; and the tours of the historic ships docked along the waterfront, including the USS Constellation.
The foundation was started in 1985 and began with one schooner, the Lady Maryland. “We had one boat and one mission: to teach kids about the Chesapeake Bay by putting them there,” Truett said. “From that, we’ve grown exponentially. We still take kids out, but we do lots of other things that stay true to our mission, which is learning by doing – that’s at the core of everything we do.”
The Living Classroom has been replicated in Florida and North Carolina. And it comes to Philadelphia once a year. Every fall, the Baltimore program has sent the skipjack Sigsbee to Philly, where it docks at Penn’s Landing and, in partnership with the Independence Seaport Museum, offers area students hands-on shipboard experience.
There are other riverfronts throughout the United States, and around the world, that could offer other lessons for Philadelphia, according to Peter Reed, a curator in the department of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He said the city could look to Louisville’s Waterfront Park, designed by Hargreaves Associates, which will include a water playground; or to Portland, Ore., or Toronto’s lakefront project. San Francisco’s Crissy Field, another Hargreaves project, is a former military installation that has undergone “a spectacular transformation, turning it into a wonderful park, wetlands and place to go after work. It’s very cool,” Reed said.
He also cites Stockholm as a great example of riverfront redevelopment that makes use of many forms of water recreation. The Swedish project was decades in the making he said. “They had a horrible waterfront; now, it’s a pristine archipelago. There’s lots of sailing, boating for tourists, and boat tours of historic royal palaces. They’ve built an incredibly beautiful waterfront.”
It is possible to go far beyond commercial interests in planning a new riverfront, Reed said, to explore and expand everything from recreation to ecology.
Dining Cruises to Cabin Cruisers
Most visitors to the Delaware get their waterfront views in short bursts. The Spirit of Philadelphia (www.spiritofphiladelphia.com), a four-deck harbor cruise ship, offers two- to three-hour voyages from the Ben Franklin Bridge to the Navy Ship Yard and provides meals and music. The RiverLink (www.riverlinkferry.com) ferries riders every hour from Penn’s Landing to the Camden Waterfront. The crossing takes just 12 minutes.
The duck ride lasts a little longer. Ride the Ducks (www.phillyducks.com), a division of the Dollywood entertainment company, has been operating for five years in Philadelphia, said marketing coordinator Emily Myers. A mix of tourists, local families and school groups board the amphibious craft and visit historic sites around the city before splashing into the Delaware beneath the Ben Franklin Bridge. The 70-minute duck ride spends about 20 minutes in the water, cruising along the Philadelphia shoreline to Penn’s Landing and back again.
A water taxi system also operated along the Delaware in the early 1990s, but it failed for several reasons, according to Joe Brooks, acting president of the Penn’s Landing Corporation, the non-profit, quasi-public corporation formed in 1970 to manage the central waterfront. “The critical mass did not exist at that time to sustain the operation,” Brooks said. The water taxi line was undercapitalized and had inconsistent service, he added. The operator also was limited to the Philadelphia shoreline; an agreement with the ferry system prevented cross-river rides on the taxis.
A short-lived attempt at a water shuttle system, linking Festival Pier to the Great Plaza and points in-between, was tried and failed as recently as 2004.
The Delaware waterfront also had paddleboats in the early ’90s, said Jody Milkman, vice president of marketing and programming for Penn’s Landing Corporation, “but it didn’t fund itself.” Two different operators tried to make a go of it in a protected area of a marina. Neither attracted enough business to keep them afloat. Still, Milkman believes, paddleboats “would be a great use” of the waterfront.
A variety of other seaworthy craft are permitted on the Delaware.
According to Lt. Junior Grade Tamisha Williams, public affairs officer for the Coast Guard’s Delaware Bay sector, any activity is allowed on the central portion of the river unless it would impede regular water traffic or create a security or safety concern. Those kinds of activities, such as a convention of tall ships, require a marine event permit.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission also permits any kind of boating on the Delaware along Philadelphia. “We have everything right up to ocean-going vessels” on that portion of the river, said regional manager Ray Bednarchik. Because of that, recreational boats have to give way to large commercial vessels, which can’t maneuver easily. The fishing restrictions are the same as anywhere else in the state; anyone over 16 needs a license. There are also specific consumption advisories in that area which appear on the commission’s website, www.fish.state.pa.us/mpag1.htm.
Taking advantage of those freedoms on the water are hundreds of boats that dock in several marinas along the shoreline. The Philadelphia Marine Center (www.philamarinecenter.com) has 338 slips on several sites from the south side of Pier 12, below the Ben Franklin, north to Pier 24. Since its start in 1986, the marina has stayed the same size, but its occupants have grown. “We’ve seen bigger and bigger boats; that’s the trend,” explained Pat Cahill, manager of the marina, which can now handle 70-footers, or larger. “It’s sometimes a challenge to accommodate those vessels. We have to have enough deep water, and we have to accommodate the power of the big boats – they have more bells and whistles.”
The marina maintains full occupancy 75 percent of the year, and 15 percent of the power boats and sailboats are transient clients, Cahill said.
She has watched Delaware Avenue turn into Columbus Boulevard, and its commercial truck traffic give way to cars and new walkways. She hopes the evolution of the waterfront will be “user-friendly” for her boaters, “a mix of families, single professionals, and single men.”
“We would like to see more development,” whether it’s condos, shopping, dining, or gambling. “We need resources for all the people, whether they’re visiting or living here. There needs to be a mix,” Cahill said.
“I think the city has done an excellent job” at developing the waterfront so far, she also said, “but it would be great if we had more people. The waterfront is just another piece of what the city is about.”
Getting Their Feet Wet
While sails and outboard motors can power small boaters away from the other river denizens – tankers, scows and freighters – the heavy traffic, and other industrial byproducts, prevent some recreational pursuits.
About 50 miles north of the city is River Country (www.rivercountry.net), the tube/kayak/canoe rental company at Point Pleasant. The typical tubing journey is 5 miles, and the only obstacles to a pleasant trip are thunderstorms and the rare flood. Bringing the joy of tubing to the Philadelphia area has other challenges, said vice president of operations Rick Bray.
“I’ve been in the water there, and if you look at it close, it’s a little spooky,” Bray said. “So much industry was built up along the river and persisted over the years…The standards for dumping have changed a lot, and it’s environmentally cleaner than it used to be. But it will be a while before they should let swimming in there,” he said.
Yet if the river were cleaned up, tubing would be feasible, Bray continued. “There is a lot of boating there, so you’d have to be careful with that.” There’s also the width of the river. “At Penn’s Landing it’s about a half-mile wide as opposed to 300 yards in Bucks County. So, the more apt you’ll be to floating in the middle of a mass of water. If you have large boats traveling by, it could be treacherous,” he said. “Where the large ships stop would determine where you could tube or canoe.”
Around the Ben Franklin Bridge, personal watercraft could patrol to ensure safety of tubers and canoeists, “like having a lifeguard,” he said.
“The possibilities are unlimited if someone steps up to the plate and does what has to be done,” which means making the river cleaner and safer, Bray said.
The issue of swimming in the Delaware and other waters around the city is currently being studied by an engineering firm hired by the non-profit Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area. The firm is looking at the possibility of creating a floating pool, which would be suspended by pontoons on the river, at prospective sites where the water is clean and calm enough for bathing. The study, which will narrow the possible sites on the Schuylkill and the Delaware to six locations and then to three, is expected to be completed at the end of September. (To read more about the swimming study, go to www.planphilly.com/node/1490.)
Calm Waters and Cityscapes
Every year the Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area (www.schuylkillriver.org) coordinates a seven-day canoe sojourn down the length of the Schuylkill, which ended June 30 at Lloyd Hall on Boathouse Row. A record 180 people participated in the sojourn this year; about 35 completed the entire journey. The trip is meant to get people to view the river as a recreational resource and important natural resource.
A similar, less well-known trip is also held each year on the Delaware and its tributaries, organized by the Pocono Environmental Education Center (www.peec.org). About 150 people took part last month (June); 20 paddled the whole route. But the Delaware sojourn doesn’t cover the entire river, just 80 miles of certain sections. The closest the paddlers came to Philadelphia this year was the stretch they traveled on the Rancocas Creek in Burlington County, N.J., which also concluded on June 30.
Andy Desko, registration coordinator for the Delaware trip, explained that below the Delaware Water Gap, there isn’t much of a challenge for canoeists. “We have difficulty in getting people to participate in that area. They want the white water action,” Desko said. The waters closer to Philadelphia, he added, are something of a joke to paddlers. “They’re just not as exciting.”
Local kayakers and canoeists have other reasons for sticking to the Schuylkill and only occasionally traveling the Delaware in the Philadelphia area. Jeanne Griffin, of the Philadelphia Canoe Club (www.philacanoe.org), said members prefer to kayak around Lambertville and Scudder Falls in Bucks County.
Craig Stoneking, the club’s training director, said most paddlers bypass the city riverfront for several reasons: the lack of decent access points to the water; the lack of safe parking for their vehicles while they are on the water; and the “largely industrial and unaesthetic appearance of the shore from the water’s edge.”
Griffin’s husband, Richard Greene, a former commodore of the canoe club, said members have often talked about paddling the Delaware south of the Betsey Ross Bridge, “but it’s dangerous.” From Trenton to the mouth of the Delaware Bay is “big-ship traffic. It’s not very canoe-friendly. I know some guys have done it, but it’s kind of choppy, kind of dirty, and there’s a lot of floating debris.”
There are two kinds of canoeists — white water and flat water, Greene said. “The white water group wants to go fast; they like big waves and fast currents. The flat water paddlers are more interested from a recreational standpoint. They like to get back to what Native Americans saw, which is so-called wilderness.” And the city’s Delaware waterfront is “not what we want to see.”
Designers’ proposals to build canoe or kayaking areas along the seven-mile stretch from Allegheny Avenue to Oregon Avenue may not satisfy avid paddlers, Greene also said. “We want to paddle miles, not a hundred yards.” But the creation of freshwater pools among the old industrial piers might be appropriate for recreational kayaks, lightweight boats made for paddling on flat water. “If the whole idea is to get people out and paddling around, that could fit into what the city wants to do,” he said.
Greene hopes that as Philadelphia redevelops the riverfront, it maintains “some history” and the views from the water of the city’s old warehouses and homes. “Most of that is gone now, and it’s a shame,” he said. If the city can make the Delaware accessible to paddlers by creating a kind of “inter-waterway,” they should be able to see “what the waterside of Philadelphia looked like.”
Up on West Manhattan’s new waterfront, beginning kayakers are taking to the water in increasing numbers, said Albert Butzel, president of the Friends of Hudson River Park. They can learn how to maneuver the small craft on calm waters, then venture out to trickier tidal waters around the Statue of Liberty when they have some experience. Other paddlers use outrigger canoes or whitehall gigs, which are old-style harbor rowboats that are being built in a special program by high school students.
As on the Delaware, large ships also navigate the Hudson. “There are conflicts, especially between the ferries and people on their human-powered crafts. But they manage to coexist,” Butzel said. “There are wake problems … there are loads and loads of people out there. But the small boats stay closer to the shore.”
There is also swimming in Hudson River Park. “As long as it doesn’t rain, you can swim in the water. And lots of people do it,” Butzel said. If there is a significant storm, park-goers are discouraged from going in for two days.
“Entering the Consciousness”
Peta Raabe, whose firm Lager Raabe Skafte developed the Bridge to Bridge Master Plan for regatta racing on the Schulykill, said there are two factors on the Delaware that will probably prevent some forms of recreation: “The limit of where recreation is possible because of the big ships, and the quality of the water.”
But she believes it is vital that the city increase the opportunities for sports and leisure on the Delaware. “People are drawn to the water, and to be separated from it as we are is frustrating.” Residents can find outlets on the Schuylkill, “but we don’t have it along the Delaware.”
Architect Kiki Bolender, of Schade and Bolender, said that with the superior conditions on the Schuylkill and Cooper Rivers, the Delaware may not be best suited for certain pursuits. But there are many other possibilities for that side of the city. Canoe lanes up and down the waterfront could be designed, as could contained, secure areas for paddleboats and a swimming pool.
She said the Delaware could also benefit from an interpretive center like the one adjacent to the Water Works restaurant on the Schuylkill. “Something to engage people on water quality issues of the Delaware would be great,” she said.
The best way to do that, she added, is getting people out on the water. “More and more people are seeing watershed issues as part of the quality of their own lives. It is entering the consciousness more – how scarce clean water is,” she said.
Connecting water quality and recreation will have rippling effects in planning what to do with adjacent sites along the riverfront, where paddlers and boaters will want to eat, Bolender said. And others may just stop by and sit in new parks and patios, where they can wave to passing boaters or watch the river flow.
WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.