Corcoran crosses the Delaware

Aug. 17

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

Tom Corcoran, president and CEO of Cooper’s Ferry Development Association in Camden, was named president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation – the entity that replaced the Penn’s Landing Corporation earlier this year.

In making the announcement Monday afternoon, Mayor Michael Nutter said it was amazing that a national search that yielded more than 100 applicants led to a man right across the river.

“In Tom we have a highly qualified candidate with a proven track record of transforming urban waterfronts,” said Donn Scott, Chairman of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation.  

Alan Greenberger, who sits on the DRWC board as acting deputy mayor for commerce and planning and is also the city’s director of planning, said the most important thing Corcoran brings to Philadelphia is tons of experience in a tough place.

“He’s had 25 years of making something happen in Camden,” Greenberger said. “Camden is very difficult politically – the state as well as the city are involved and it’s a very poor place.”

Corcoran said leaving his current job was a very difficult choice. “Camden is my life’s work.”

But he could not resist the opportunity to help shape the waterfront he’s been looking at for all of these years.

Corcoran praised the work that has already been done in Philadelphia during recent years, including the creation of the Civic Vision for The Central Delaware, which he called the “foundation document” for the work to come.

The new job will allow Corcoran, who replaces acting president Joe Brooks, to work on the Philadelphia piece of what he has always considered the same waterfront puzzle.

From the beginning of CFDA’s creation, he told PlanPhilly in 2007, “we wanted to see the two waterfronts develop in tandem and someday operate in tandem as a single destination with exciting things to do on both sides, tied together by  interesting modes of transportation. … And whether you parked on the Philadelphia side and came over to Camden, or vice versa, you wouldn’t be aware of the artificial political line that runs down the middle of the river.”

Corcoran has previously asked Philadelphia planners to see the possibilities, too. “I understand their narrow task is how to make it best to tie together the seven miles of their waterfront, and rectify the sins of the past and make things better for the future. But while they’re doing that, they should be looking at the linkages to New Jersey.”

Corcoran also suggests the two cities think about ideas “like someday running a high-speed ferry from the Waterworks, or the Zoo, that would come down the Schuylkill, have a stop at the Navy Yard, a stop at RiverWinds in West Deptford, come up to our waterfront, and go to the casinos. You can really tie everything together, and it should be tied together.”

He has also been a leading proponent of a Camden-Philadelphia tram, a project that was started in 2000 but is presently stalled.

“The tram itself will be the icon of Two Cities-One Waterfront,” a marketing concept forged by CFDA that foresees a unified tourist destination made up of Camden’s attractions, Penn’s Landing and Philadelphia’s historic district. “There really is strong synergy between the two cities,” Corcoran told PlanPhilly in 2007.

Corcoran’s work in Camden has made a huge difference in that city, said Rodney Sadler, chairman of Camden’s planning board and president of Save Our Waterfront, the North Camden neighborhood association.

“He was the main developer on a lot of the projects on the waterfront, and has been involved more than 20 years,” said Sadler, who attributes the success of the waterfront projects largely to Corcoran. “He’s a very directed individual. He takes a hold of a project and doesn’t let go until it’s done.  He’s very, very tenancious in terms of waterfront development.”

Sadler said he was saddened a bit when Corcoran called to tell him he was headed across the river.

“I knew that he had been considering, actually, retirement, and then this opportunity presented itself,” he said. “You’re always going to be a little disappointed to see a change. And we don’t know how that’s going to affect us. Someone else will have to pick up and keep carrying the ball,” he said. “But I wish him nothing but good luck. And I think he will be able to rise to the occasion and he will be able to do a good job.”

Sadler said he’s watched Corcoran adeptly handle working with different administrations in Camden over the years. Sadler is from Philly, and he laughed when asked if Corcoran could handle the politics here.

“Can he navigate complicated political sitautions? He can. It will take him a minute to get up to speed, but he will find himself at home on those waters on that side as well,” Sadler said.

Tom Corcoran was a panelist at an Urban Land Institute forum in June.

Cooper’s Ferry Development Association (CFDA) was founded in 1984 as a private, non-profit corporation dedicated to creating and carrying out economic development projects within the City of Camden. CFDA’s mission “is to coherently plan and implement high-quality urban redevelopment projects in order to help replenish Camden’s depleted tax base and to create a significant number of jobs for city residents. CFDA also works to improve Camden’s environment as a place in which to live, to work, to visit and to invest.”

According to its charter, the purpose of the DRWC is to “design, develop and manage the central Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia between Oregon and Allegheny Avenues. The Corporation intends to transform the central Delaware River waterfront into a vibrant destination location for recreational, cultural, and commercial activities for the residents and visitors of Philadelphia. The Corporation will serve as a catalyst for high quality investment in public parks, trails, maritime, residential, retail, hotel and other improvements that create a vibrant amenity, extending Philadelphia to the river’s edge.

“The Corporation will be open, transparent and accountable in connection with its operations and activities with respect to the waterfront. Through the judicious use of financing, land acquisition and development capabilities, the Corporation will work cooperatively with city, state and federal agencies to ensure the realization the City’s vision for the central Delaware River.”

Tom Corcoran was a panelist at the PennPraxis waterfront best practices session in early 2007.

DRWC director Avi Eden, said the process by which the new president was chosen highlights the need for the DRWC to talk more about what information should be public, what the full board of directors should know and be involved in, and what should be kept to a smaller group in sensitive situations.

There is clearly a need for some secrecy to protect things like applicants’ privacy and real estate deals, he said. The DRWC is still a new organization, Eden said, and it must very carefully decide where to draw the lines. Even a slight whiff of something that reminds the public of the way the old Penn’s Landing Corporation used to work could taint the reputation of an organization that is working hard at transparency and is making great progress on riverfront projects, such as Pier 11, Eden said.

Eden, who would not identify the organization’s new president, abstained from the vote allowing Chairman Scott to enter negotiations with the candidate. It wasn’t that he doubted the candidate’s qualifications, Eden said, it was that he had never met him prior to the vote.

“How can I vote for anyone I haven’t met?” he said. He later met the candidate. If that had happened prior to the negotiations vote, “I would have voted ok. At least from the initial meeting, I have no negative feelings. I feel the candidate seems to have all of the qualifications.”

Steve Weixler, chairman of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, an organization of civic association representatives that advocates for the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware, said he hasn’t had a chance to sit down with Corcoran, but likes his credentials. “The corporation really needs, particularly at this juncture, a business-like approach, and that’s an encouraging sign to me,” said Weixler.

The Civic Vision was put together by PennPraxis based on more than a year of input from the public. It calls for a multi-use urban waterfront that is connected to the city’s neighborhoods, and also has green spaces and a biking/walking trail. The mayor and the planning commission have accepted it as the document that will guide the creation of the Central Delaware Master Plan, which is expected to be finished in about 18 months.

PennPraxis Executive Director Harris Steinberg said Corcoran has proven he can get things done. But Steinberg said he won’t know for sure how he feels about the appointment until he knows what the mayor’s charge to Corcoran will be.

“Camden is a very different place from Philadelphia, politically, physically, culturally. The vision for the Philadelphia waterfront as a dense, urban extension of Philadelphia to the water’s edge, is different from the Camden waterfront, which is a tourist destination,” Steinberg said. “So Tom and Cooper’s Ferry have been successful in implementing a vision that is different from what the Civic Vision has proposed.

“I would be comfortable if his role is to be one of taking the vision and moving forward into the 21st Century, but not using the Camden waterfront as a template for the Philadelphia waterfront.”

Sadler, Camden’s planning board chair, said he’s somewhat familiar with the Civic Vision, and he knows its goals are different than those for Camden. But, he said, Camden’s goals have changed over the years, and Corcoran has adapted to them.

“When I came from Philadelphia to Camden 35 years ago, there was a different focus. We were looking at high-rise apartment buildings and fancy marinas. But then reality set in. We had to figure out what kinds of things we could do that were sustainable. You can’t do anything before its time. You can’t build 500 units of condo space if only 200 people are looking for condos,” Sadler said.

“It’s going to take interpretation. He’ll have to see what’s there, and how he can make it work. I believe whatever happens there has to be consistent with the environment – it has to fit in to the will of the people, the will of government, economic times – a lot of factors.”

Monday’s announcement is scheduled for 1 p.m., with a reception to follow at the DRWC’s Delaware Avenue headquarters.

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