Changing Skyline: A peerless plan for a Philly pier

Changing Skyline: A peerless plan for a Philly pier

When the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. selected Field Operations last fall to design a new park at the Race Street pier, it was hard to shake off a certain feeling of trepidation.

The firm, led by Philadelphia-based James Corner, was still basking in rave reviews for its work on the High Line park, the magical suspended garden that rolls through New York’s Chelsea neighborhood on an elevated trestle. But for that five-acre project, Corner’s group enjoyed a kingly budget of $152 million. Perennially cash-strapped Philadelphia was setting aside just $5 million for its one-acre pier, and part of that money was meant to cover repairs to the structure’s 109-year-old wooden piles.

How could the results ever measure up? Was Philadelphia fated – not for the first time – to get second-rate work from a first-rate designer?

Waterfront officials now have released images of the park design, and the results should put to rest any doubts about Field Operations’ ability to work on the cheap. Their sure-handed design promises to do for Philadelphia’s neglected waterfront what the High Line park did for its railroad relic: make it a destination for high-end hanging out.

Race Street pier won’t have the High Line’s seductive chocolate-colored, Ipe-wood furnishings or custom-made pavers. The design’s strength is its strong, clear composition, which should wrest maximum drama from that narrow, confined space. Field Operations’ strategy is a nice reminder that good design isn’t so much about the size of your budget as the breadth of your imagination.

Field Operations’ designers, Corner and associate Lisa Tziona Switkin, have nicknamed the scheme “The Slice.” The shorthand refers to their big move, a ramp that will diagonally bisect the long pier while cresting slowly upward.

By the time you reach the end, you’ll be hovering about 15 feet above the churning Delaware River, high enough to scan its vastness like a lookout in a ship’s crow’s nest. At that point, the Ben Franklin Bridge’s massive stone abutment should feel close enough to touch. The compass needle of Camden’s City Hall will guide your eye into South Jersey.

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