Exclusive: Teens using waterfront trail, piers in Pennsport for drinking parties

Organization that controls the trail and piers says it will change security procedures; police will reportedly increase patrols. Pennsport Civic Pres. says an improved community/river connection would bring more people and lessen the sense of isolation.

The Delaware River trail and piers in Pennsport are providing large groups of teenagers with a private place to drink, community leaders say.

Two weeks ago, one parent says he saw between 100 and 150 teens heading down to the trail and on the piers between and behind the Delaware Avenue Walmart and the U.S. Coastguard Station at Delaware and Washington avenues.

With that many kids, under the influence of alcohol, “There could be a rape, a fight, an overdose. And if one of those kids falls in … I know how strong those currents are down there,” said the parent. He and his wife parked behind the Walmart when he suspected one of his children was headed to a party. He found his kid – now grounded – and saw many others from the neighborhood, and others he didn’t know. There were some girls, but most were boys, and some look like they might not have even reached their teens yet, he said.

Based on conversations with his child and others, the parent said many of the teens are buying beer from a group of men who have established a weekend business of sorts beneath the I-95 ramp behind the Wawa. “They are getting the teenagers to give them twice as much as a quart would cost,” he said. In between customers, the men play hacky sack and corn hole (aka, bean bag toss). Some kids and other parents have told him that several local establishments are both selling to the men under I-95 knowing they will re-sell to minors, or selling to the minors directly without asking for ID.

“These kids aren’t doing anything that you or I didn’t do, or anybody else,” said Pennsport Civic Association President Jim Moylan. But, he said, they are doing it in a much more dangerous area than dark areas beneath I-95. And if someone got hurt, they are “thousands of yards away from civilization.”

Pennsport Civic has called on the police, local officials, and the Central Delaware Waterfront Corporation, a coalition of waterfront civic and other organizations, for help.

At-large Councilman Jim Kenney’s office has notified the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s enforcement division of the sale of alcohol to minors or go-betweens and has spoken to the Philadelphia Police Department’s Third District. “The police have offered to do some increased patrols back there – bike patrols,” said Jim Engler, Kenney’s director of legislation.

First District Councilman Mark Squilla also spoke with local police. “They are going to both go down to the pier and discourage underage drinking with citations or arrests if necessary, and also going after the buyers – the people buying them the beer who hang out by Morris Street,” he said.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation owns and is responsible for the trail and some of the piers. Pennsport Civic President Jim Moylan believes the underage drinking situation means DRWC needs to step up security and take other measures to make the area safer. He has not yet called DRWC directly, saying he thought sharing his concerns with the police, Kenney, First District Councilman Mark Squilla, State Rep. William Keller and the Central Delaware Advocacy Group would be more effective. “I don’t feel as though I carry sway with them, I cannot make them hop. But someone else can make them,” he said.

DRWC will take action immediately, said Vice President for Operations and Development Joe Forkin. He said the first he’d heard about the situation was when PlanPhilly asked him about it early Thursday afternoon.

“In the short term, we have to step-up patrols and communicate better with police, since we know this is going on now,” Forkin said.

Moylan was pleased to hear this. Engler called it “a good first step.”

Having so many minors drinking on piers, some of which might not be sturdy enough to support them, is a dangerous situation that “needs to be addressed by everybody – the police, DRWC, LCB – we need everybody involved,” Engler said.

“With DRWC patrolling, and extra police, the kids will go to a different spot,” Squilla said. While he’d prefer they not drink until their 21, “kids drinking right by the river is really dangerous, and not something we can turn a blind eye to.”

DRWC controls the waterfront trail and seven of the piers in the area: Piers 70, 68, 63 and 62 near the Walmart and piers 53, 55 and 57 near the sheet metal workers union.

In between are several piers owned privately: 60, 62 and 63 are attached to the former Foxwoods site, now owned by developer Bart Blatstein.

Forkin said two security guards are currently on duty along the trail and the piers 24-hours a day, every day of the week. One is always stationed at Pier 53, which is currently being transformed into a park.

The other has patrolled the trail from dawn until dusk, he said. But then gates on either end are closed and locked over night. During that time, the second guard has focused his efforts elsewhere, Forkin said. But no longer.

Forkin said DRWC will set up rounds, where at random times, one of the security guards will travel the trail even when it is closed. “We will have them randomly rove.”

Moylan said it surprised him that a security guard stationed at Pier 53 wouldn’t have heard 100-plus kids partying. But he praised the idea of randomly timed patrols – random means the young people can’t figure out the pattern, and plan accordingly, he said.

The fencing that blocks off the DRWC-controlled piers is regularly cut by people who want to go out on them, Forkin said. The cut-and-repair cycle is constant, he said.

“And it’s not always just kids, or people looking to do something bad. There are people who like to fish out there, and they don’t like to be locked out,” he said.

When PlanPhilly took a recent weekend waterfront walk, several pier fences were cut. We saw a couple go out onto one pier, which is still covered with trees and brush. We saw another group on another, cleared pier. They didn’t appear to be doing anything other than looking out at the water.

Everyone is trespassing and ignoring the signs that say so, Forkin said, but that’s not the DRWC’s concern. Safety is.

Only some of the DRWC piers actually look like piers – some have decayed into the river to the point where they are just piles sticking out of the water. Others that still stand are not safe in all places, or for all amounts of weight.

For example, at Pier 53, a self-supporting boardwalk is part of the design to ensure visitor safety. And at Pier 68, the river-end of the pier has to be removed for safety reasons.

In an interview late Thursday afternoon, Moylan also said the teen parties on piers and trail are proof of another long-standing concern he’s had.

The community loves having new parks, he said, but residents do not have an easy, safe way to cross Delaware Avenue and get to the trail, Washington Avenue Green, and the future Pier 53 Park, aka Washington Avenue Pier Park.

Tasker Street has been set aside as a waterfront connector – a street where pedestrian- and cyclist-related improvements, lighting and landscaping are used to make traveling from neighborhood to waterfront safer. But Moylan believes that connection should have been made already, before any further amenities are on the waterfront.

Next week, DRWC will release the design of a new, fishing-oriented park at Pier 68. “How about we tie in what’s already here first?” he said. Building a trail and parks before making it easier for people to get there has created a destination where kids can drink without worrying that many adults will be in the area, he said.

Moylan said this and other community concerns would be more obvious to DRWC if their board included representatives from the community – something Pennsport has pushed for since the city imploded the former Penn’s Landing Corporation and replaced it with DRWC.

“I agree that the Southern Waterfront needs better connections to the River,” Forkin wrote in an email response to a follow up question posed by PlanPhilly after business hours.  But that part of the waterfront has unique complications, he said.

“Given the past port industrial nature of that area, and unlike other areas, most of what would be the connector streets in the south have been stricken from the City plan and are privately owned,” Forkin wrote. “We are working with the private owners in an attempt to acquire control of riverfront setback and access.”

A segment of Tasker poses this kind of problem, Forkin said. ” We are hopeful that we will be able to acquire and control the segment of Tasker that is closed and will be able to provide a meaningful connection to the River for the residents,” he wrote. “Once we have control of complete access to the River, we will work closely with Pennsport to design and construct the improvements.”

“I think the improvements work in tandem – good connections (Tasker Street) to a desirable destination (Trails and Parks).”

The parent PlanPhilly spoke with asked to remain anonymous because he fears his kids would face backlash from other teens over their dad trying to shut down their parties.

When he saw the situation two weeks ago, he called the police, and an officer came in a patrol car. The officer couldn’t access the area where the underage people were gathered with his car. The officer had no bicycle. And when the kids saw the officer, they scattered fast, he said. A call to the Third District community relations officer has not yet been returned.

Moylan forwarded an email from the parent, with his name removed, to Rene Goodwin, Pennsport’s representative to the Central Delaware Advocacy Group,as well as CDAG Chairman Matt Ruben and District Councilman Mark Squilla. Squilla’s office could not be reached immediately, but we will update the story if we hear back.

Goodwin brought the issue to CDAG.

“I don’t think CDAG, or DRWC, or the City of Philadelphia wants a black eye on one of its major development projects,” Goodwin said. “We need to try to avoid this before it happens.”

Tammy Leigh DeMent, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s CDAG representative, suggested that part of the problem is the trail and the eventual pier parks it will link are still underutilized.

In the Thursday conversation with PlanPhilly, Forkin said that further improving the area are part of a longer-term plan that will make the area much-less attractive for underage drinking or any illegal activity. “Adding more improvements into the area, and removing the feeling of it being a vacant or abandoned place where these kinds of activities can take place  … hopefully starts to prevent this kind of activity on its own,” he said.

At the CDAG meeting, Goodwin agreed that in the future, the piers will be busy places during the day. “But no one is going to be going out there in the evening,” when the young people are drinking and whatnot.

Moylan said security, lighting and gating are needed at night, but he does think bringing more adults to the trail, even during the day, will lessen the teen’s perception that it’s an isolated place.

CDAG Chairman Matt Ruben asked all members with concerns related to pier and trail safety to write them down, for compilation in a letter to DRWC.

These folks shouldn't be out on this pier. Photo taken in May
These folks shouldn’t be out on this pier. Photo taken in May

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