By Natalie Pompilio
Wednesday night, optimism got mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism – something for which Philadelphians are famous.
After PennPraxis presented a vision of the Delaware River waterfront that was garnered from more than a year’s worth of meetings with residents, planners, developers and those whose livelihood depends on that waterfront, the “Average Joes” in the audience said they liked what they saw – but wondered if they’d ever really see it happen.
“It’s a good idea, and with all the stuff going on with crime, this is something that would help how other people see our city,” said Gonzalo Ventura, who lives on Lehigh Avenue near Richmond Street. “But I think it might be another half-done project.”
His wife, Sandy Jaroszelski, put it more bluntly: “It looks nice, but I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime.”
Of course, it was hard for residents not to like what was presented to the crowd of more than 1,100 people at the Convention Center via the magic of computer imagery: The now-barren space beneath the Girard Avenue I-95 interchange was transformed into a lush green park, complete with joggers; abandoned industrial buildings in Port Richmond suddenly didn’t seem so bad when a grid of experimental plantings that invite birds and fish were added; the city view from the end of Market Street vastly improved when I-95 miraculously disappeared and a park was added at the river’s edge.
One of the most controversial waterfront development issues – the building of two casinos already approved by the state but vociferously opposed by a portion of the populace – was largely avoided. During his presentation, PennPraxis director Harris Steinberg showed one slide with boxes marking where the casinos would be located – and then a second from which they had disappeared. (Even that brief flash of the casinos grew angry shouts from the crowd.)
But this plan put more of an emphasis on extending the city’s street grid all the way to the river; adding homes and businesses in areas now wasted and unfriendly to visitors; developing parks and green spaces and being environmentally responsible.
“I’m in heaven,” West Torresdale resident Dianne Retzbach. “We have to realize we have such wonderful natural resources in the Delaware Valley.”
Retzbach said she was initially upset by the idea of private condominiums and businesses being built along the river’s edge. But as long as the public still has access to the water, and the buildings are not so high as to clutter the skyline, she supports it.
“Anything else would be tantamount to a mortal sin,” she said.
The presentation built hopes but also left some questions unanswered: Extending the city’s grid is great but who is going to pay for it, some attendees asked. Would more police officers be needed to patrol them? Would taxes rise? What was the timeline for development?
“I have a lot of doubts. There’s a lot of red tape ahead,” said Ron Trout, of Torresdale. “Things are going to be slowed down with people saying, ‘I’m not getting enough of the pie.’ They’ll probably get the plan started, but then what?”
Some people, like Springfield resident Mike D’onofrio, were impressed by the number of people who had participated in the planning process.
“They really did ask people. That’s what got me,” he said.
Walking into the main room, he was shocked by the size of the crowd. “You don’t get this many people for anything,” he said.
He was also impressed by the plan. The city, he said, has gotten better every year for the past 15 years, “but the one thing they had neglected addressing was the waterfront,” he said. “We travel all over the world and in every successful city, there’s a vibrant waterfront.”
Retzbach, too, noted the importance of the public’s participation.
“Be heartened by the fact that so many people are coming together with this vision,” she said. “If half of this happens, a fourth of this happens, it’s so much better than what we’ve had.”
Natalie Pompilio is a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org