Central Delaware Master Plan team reports out analysis phase

Having spent several months analyzing the current conditions along the Central Delaware riverfront, the team assembling the plan that will guide development there into the future reported back to the public on Monday night.

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Alex Cooper of Cooper Robertson & Partners, Lucinda Sanders of OLIN, James Timberlake of KieranTimberlake, and John Alschuler, Jr. of HR&A Associates, outlined their findings at the Festival Pier tent. Some highlights:

-The city does need better connections between its neighborhoods and the Delaware Riverfront, but accessibility isn’t really as bad as it seems. A good number of streets make it the whole way to the waterfront now. The trouble is, many of them pass under I-95 via dark, unpleasant places. And there is a sizable chunk of real estate that is neither waterfront nor vibrant neighborhood, but former industrial spaces or other underutilized places that are not fun to move through.

-While it’s possible that some sections of I-95 may be capped, it’s most likely going to stay much the way it is. But the good news is that things like landscaping and lighting and the extension of the densely developed neighborhoods down to the water will make it seem less of a barrier than it does now.

-The riverfront is a very big place, and it can – and should – accomodate many uses. Some areas will be dense residential. Others will be commercial. And others will accomodate industry, including port uses. Open green space and park space is also essential. Currently, none of the land is actually zoned for park use, even though one park, slightly less than an acre, exists – Penn Treaty Park.

-Dense residential does not mean high rise towers. This is one of the areas where “authentic Philadephia” comes in. What works here is what has always worked here: Buildings of 3-5 stories, packed close together. As an added bonus, more developers are likely to take on projects of this scale because  they don’t cost as much to build to develop or take as long to fill as high rises.

-Retail does not mean big box. It means small-scale development of the kind people enjoy having in their neighborhoods.

Mayor Michael Nutter also stopped by to cheer on the work done by the professionals and city residents who for more than two years have been coming to meetings and workshops to make their riverfront desires known.

He said Philadelphia’s waterfront will be a place “where residents, businesses and entertainment all come together” and it will also be “open, accessible and green.”

The night’s discussion was led by Marilyn Jordan Taylor, Dean of PennDesign and a board member of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation – the quasi-public entity responsible for the publicly owned portions of the riverfront and the master plan.  

The Master Plan will be guided by the Vision for the Central Delaware, a river wish list assembled by PennPraxis after more than a year of public input.

As the experts and the public continue to weigh in, Taylor said, some of the principles are evolving. For example, attention is now being paid to the New Jersey side of the river, she said, and to the relationship between the two sides.

Balance has also emerged as a theme. Ecology must be balanced with economy, Taylor said. Environmental goals are important, but so is the working river.  And while the master plan is a guide to the future, she said, the river’s history is vitally important and must be preserved where it can be.

After the experts went over their findings so far, Taylor opened up the meeting to questions from the audience. And there were plenty – so many that they could not all be answered at the event. (All questions and answers, including those that were addressed last night, have been posted on the new Central Delaware Master Plan website.)

The first group of questions dealt with I-95. Could, or should, more of it be covered?

The consensus from the experts was that maybe some portions could be covered, but that there was not enough money, political will or time to cover the whole thing. But their preliminary work has convinced them that the road and the wide expanse of Delaware Avenue/Columbus Boulevard can be dealt with in other ways.

Timberlake said that any space created by the capping of some portions of I-95 will have to be developed because the “economic reality” is that open space there isn’t feasible.
Sanders said that extending the neighborhoods on one side of I-95 right to the river with dense development would make the distance to the waterfront seem shorter and less of an obstacle.

Taylor referred to slides shown earlier in the evening that depicted various ways highway overpasses are dealt with in other cities. In one place, the overpass was so high that a full park – including trees – fit right underneath. In another place, which was closer to what Philadelphia has now, lighting and more typical landscaping made the place seem pleasant.

Cooper agreed that “gardens and greenspace are useful ways of making (overpasses) digestible.”
Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger said he was neither hopeful enough or patient enough to plan on burying any significant chunk of I-95. Even if the “tens of billions of dollars” it would take to do a Philadelphia version of the big dig were available right now, such a project would take about 10 years of planning, and 15 years of construction. “I’m not wiating 25 years for something good to happen on this waterfront on a suspicious bet,” he said.

The DRWC has already been thinking a lot about ways to connect the neighborhoods to the riverfront. One of the reasons the Race Street Pier and Race Street Pier connector projects are being tackled now is that this is one of the easier – and thus cheaper – spots to achieve a seamless connection, Greenberger said after the meeting, and it can show what can be done elsewhere. Greenberger recently received DRWC board permission to move forward with an application for a National Endowment of the Arts grant that, if Philadelphia wins, would provide money to hold a symposium to gather ideas for making connections elsewhere.

Another question from the audience was directed to Alschuler. Would there be funding to attract new businesses to the waterfront, or to help them once they get there? There will need to be some incentives, particularly in the beginning, Alshuler said. But not all of them will have to involve money. Businesses want to see parks and open space developed, he said, because that’s what will bring customers to the area, day after day.

The panelists said Philadelphia will have at least one casino – SugarHouse – and the casino should be viewed as one source of revenue for the waterfront projects.  A question surfaced about the less-certain proposed casino, Foxwoods, on which construction has not begun. Will the plan address alternatives for that site, in case no casino is ever be built there? It was not among those addressed in the time allotted last night. The answer posted on the website this morning: “There is still an ongoing state process before the Foxwoods site is eliminated entirely. We do not exactly know the timeline of these decisions. However, during the analysis phase of the master plan, our planners will certainly be charged with recommending alternate land uses for that site.”

Several questions regarding the history of the waterfront were submitted. Greenberger joked that Taylor gave him the hardest question of all when she referred a question about why the Cramps shipyard was going to be lost to the I-95 project.

“The decision to do the Girard Avenue interchange, which results in the demolition of the Cramps building, was made a long time ago,” he said. “It is a sad thing. But as far as saving it goes, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Greenberger said this loss contains a lesson. The Master Plan must protect several “very important historical sites on our waterfront,” including the Delaware Powerplant (PECO substation) near Penn Treaty Park.

In the next phase of the Master Plan work, the team will come up with potential alternatives for different aspects of the plan. These will be presented to the public on September 22 in a meeting that DRWC President Tom Corcoran said would be “more interactive,” with attendees providing input on which items they want to become part of the final plan, which is expected to be finished in late January, 2011.

Contact the reporter at kelliespatrick@gmail.com

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