Design and development of new Pier 53 park to begin; divers have started analysis of this and other Central Delaware piers

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation Thursday awarded a $1.5 million contract for the design and building of a new Pier 53 park to Applied Ecological Services, Inc. – a national firm with local offices in Conshohocken.

Washington Avenue Green, one of the first projects done under the Central Delaware Master Plan, is on the uplands portion of Pier 53, located in Pennsport behind the Walmart complex. AES and its subcontractors’ work will focus on a plan that extends the park onto the pier itself.

This extension out into the water could be partly, or entirely, above the actual pier, on independent supports, similar to a boardwalk, said DRWC Vice President for Operations Joe Forkin. It all depends on the physical condition of the existing structure, which will be determined as part of another new project – more on that shortly.

AES will hold public meetings to get input on both park design and desired uses, Forkin said. The schedule has yet to be determined.

The AES contract is being paid for with a mix of DRWC capital funds and grants from the William Penn Foundation, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the federal Coastal Zone Management program. The hope is design and permitting will be finished in six-to-nine months, with construction beginning immediately after, and finishing four-to-eight months later.

Board members asked Forkin who uses Washington Avenue Green and that section of the riverfront trail now. He said Washington Avenue Green has a very active friends group, and that the park is mostly frequented by people from nearby neighborhoods. The trail is used by bikers, walkers and people who just want to get close to the river, to see it or fish it, he said. Fishing is allowed at Washington Avenue Green.

Board Vice Chairman Jay Goldstein said that some people who are fishing are now going out onto the piers, and they should not have access, since its ability to support them is unknown.

DRWC President Tom Corcoran said the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is working on a project with DRWC to fence off the piers until more is known about which piers and portions of piers are safe or can be made safe to access.

“The divers are in the water today” to learn more about all the condition of the pier structures and shoreline between Pier 35 and Pier 70, Forkin said.

Under the master plan, the area between Pier 53 and Pier 70 would include mixed-use developments, too. Exactly how much of both park-use and development the piers can hold is the subject of the study study that has just begun, Forkin told the DRWC Executive Committee.

“We don’t know how everything is constructed down there,”  he said after the meeting. In about four weeks, information will be forthcoming, including which piers are stable enough, in all or in part, for public access.

The Pier 53/Washington Avenue Green area would be the northernmost element in a string of wetland parks that would stretch south to Pier 70.  And if things turn out like DRWC is hoping, subsequent parks would be paid for by other entities who must do environmental mitigation in order to complete their own projects.

It’s a kind of environmental banking. An entity in Philadelphia, or perhaps elsewhere in the state, that must do environmental remediation might purchase credits from DRWC, which would provide DRWC funds for projects. Another alternative: the entities could build new wetland parks or do the building themselves, according to the master plan, Forkin said.

In order for DRWC to have such a bank, it must prove that its ideas are worthy for mitigation projects. The pier portion of Washington Avenue Green will be that test, and the judges will be the Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Environmental Protection, and other state and national environmental agencies.

DRWC Board Member Marilyn Jordan Taylor, who is also dean of the Penn School of Design, said the Pier 53 project is an important way to demonstrate what the southern portion of the Central Delaware can be. “It’s great that we have the seed money that allows us to start the process while we’re waiting to make proof (to the environmental regulators) and see if it’s valid to the market place,” she said. “I think it’s a very exciting process. We can really demonstrate this.”

Farther north on the riverfront, DRWC contractor Pennoni Associates has taken soil samples, and will soon take water samples, from  the Festival Pier site. An incinerator once stood on part of the site, located at the foot of Spring Garden Street.  The contaminants have been cleaned up for some uses – such as the parking that takes place there now. But the testing was never done to certify the area for residential use, which is something the master plan calls for there.

Forkin said the site is thought to be pretty clean, but the samples, to be sent to the state DEP, will show where things really are, and what further remediation might be needed to bring the parcel to residential standards. “We should have the baseline within a month.” The DRWC has been talking about this study for some time. Learn more from this previous article.

Even if the samples come back very clean, the DEP will require repeated testing to solidify results, but the frequency and duration of the testing would be less, Forkin said.

Beneath the site, the Army Corps of Engineers has begun diving to examine the structures below water. The Corps awarded DRWC a grant that covers this work.  When the pier was built, workers constructed wooden walls out as far as they could, and put fill inside the walls. Outside that box, piles were dug into the riverbed to hold the structure. The study will determine where the walls end – generally, it is less expensive to build there than it is where the piles take over, Forkin said. But even within the big box of fill, there are unknowns – the type and condition of the soil will determine how deep piles supporting future construction there must be, he said.

“The investigations of the foundations will determine how we might be able to assist a future private developer with reinforcing the pier,” said  Corcoran.

The plan calls for the green spaces of the Central Delaware, which stretches from Oregon to Allegheny avenues, to eventually be linked by a waterfront trail.

A new portion of that trail, called the Penn Street Trail, is on track to open by Memorial Day 2013, Forkin said. The Penn Street portion will connect Spring Garden Street with SugarHouse Casino’s portion of the waterfront trail.

DRWC submitted plans to the city streets department, and responded to their concerns and is now waiting to hear back, Forkin said. By the end of the week, an application for a highway occupancy permit will be filed with PennDOT.

SugarHouse is building – and paying for – the portion of the Penn Street trail that runs through its parking lot.

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