DRWC gets $5 million boost to better connect waterfront to neighborhoods

Thanks to a $5 million grant from the William Penn Foundation, lighting, design and safety improvements that are expected to bring more people down Race Street to a refurbished waterfront pier will be finished this summer.

A $650,000 chunk of the two-year grant, announced today, will go toward the Race Street Connector project, said Tom Corcoran, president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, which is overseeing the city’s efforts to revamp the waterfront. The rest of the $1 million to $1.5 million connector pricetag will be paid for from the DRWC’s budget, and with a portion of a $1.3 million state transportation grant the DRWC also announced Thursday afternoon.

The remainder of the $5 million William Penn Grant will fund the design and creation of one or two more street improvement projects designed to reconnect the city to its riverfront, Corcoran said. It will also cover the design and cost estimates for another four or five improved connections, he said. “Then we can shop” for more grants, he said.

Feather O. Houstoun, president of the William Penn Foundation, called the gift a vote of confidence in the DRWC’s work so far.

That work includes the development of a long-range master plan for the waterfront from Oregon to Allegheny Avenues, which is expected to be released to the public in April, and several early action projects designed to convince the public this long overdue plan is really going to happen.

The Race Street Pier, expected to open in April, and the Race Street Connector are among the first projects, as are the multi-use bike trail and Washington Avenue Green, a park at the foot of Pier 53 that opened in fall 2010.

Houstoun said the improved public access the grant will pay for is important, but it takes more than access to build a great waterfront.

“We are confident that this grant will continue the positive momentum that has been generated by DRWC and the city, but in the final analysis, we understand that the shape of the waterfront will be determined by the master plan and subsequent zoning recommendations that will guide private sector investment.”

First District Councilman Frank DiCicco, who first pushed former Mayor John Street to start the process of re-doing the waterfront, said he already sees evidence that the work being done on Delaware Avenue and Columbus Boulevard is generating interest from the private sector. Philadelphia Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe will be opening an arts center in a former pumping station across the street from Race Street Pier – the side of the red brick building can be seen in some of the renderings for the connector project.

DiCicco – who called the waterfront revamp “the highlight of my career,” – credits the improvements done to date with generating interest in the building. Several other entities also sought to buy the old station.

The Race Street Connector project has been designed by the same firm that created the concept for the pier itself – James Corner Field Operations. The basic goal of the plan is to make people want to take the trip east on Race Street, even though it goes beneath two I-95 overpasses and one elevated train track.

Joe Schiavo, who is vice chair of the Old City Civic Association’s development committee and Old City’s representative on the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, which lobbies for the public’s vision for the waterfront, said that hardly anyone takes that trip now. “I wouldn’t walk down there now,” Mayor Michael Nutter said.

The plan for improvements includes lighting for safety, and also aesthetics. And it will also include security cameras. But part of the idea is that places that attract a lot of people are inherently safer. Plans also include new landscaping, bike lanes, benches and artwork, including special video screens that will be attached to  the overpasses. The cameras that transmit to those screens will be focused on the river, so that passersby may see waves, boats or birds. Signage will let people walking in Old City know just how close they are to the river, and also show people on the river how to get to Old City.

Old City Civic President Ryan Berley called the project “a wonderful start” to increase the connectivity between his neighborhood and the river.

Deputy Mayor for Transportation and Utilities Rina Cutler said she just got word of the award of the $1.3 million state transportation department grant today. Some of that money will go to the connector project, Corcoran said, but most will be used for its second phase, which will address improvements for vehicular traffic.

Corcoran said the Race Street connector and pier projects would serve as examples that could help the DRWC raise more grant money for future projects, as will the other connector projects that the rest of the $5 million will pay for. The grant must be used up within two years, Corcoran said, so “the pressure is on” to move relatively quickly. The other streets that will be targeted, either for full projects or for design, have yet to be selected, Corcoran said.

One of the surprises  that came out of the master planning process is that 34 streets already technically connect the neighborhoods to the waterfront by passing beneath I-95, Corcoran said, but none of them make the trip desirable. DRWC will identify about a dozen that have the highest priority for improvement. And from these, the handful that are the most strategically significant, and also logistically possible in the grant time frame, will be selected for the grant money, Corcoran said.

The southern end of the Central Delaware boasts two of the early action improvements – Washington Avenue Green and one of the most finished portions of the multi-purpose trail, which juts out to Columbus Boulevard at Washington.  A Washington Avenue connector would be a prime candidate for the William Penn money, Corcoran said, but that can’t be done for some time, because of planned sewer improvements.

Contact the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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