Festival Pier building site likely to shrink

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation will likely need to shrink the footprint of planned future development for the city-owned Festival Pier site at the foot of Spring Garden Street – a key component of the city’s plan to revitalize the Central Delaware Waterfront.

The Central Delaware Master Plan calls for a mixed-use residential community of mid-rise buildings, park space, a public plaza, an esplanade or trail and a protected view corridor the entire width of Spring Garden Street. All of those elements will remain in the RFP that DRWC hopes to issue in the first part of next year, said Vice President Joe Forkin.

But a preliminary analysis of riverbed conditions done by Thornton Tomasetti Structural Engineers suggests it will be best for DRWC to demolish some of the eastern-edge of the conglomeration of piers that make up the site, Forkin said. “Report isn’t final, but it looks like it could be 7 or 8 acres, as opposed to the 11 or 11.5 acres there now,” he said.

A commitment to the same 50-foot recreational trail and same width view corridor, providing a visual link between Northern Liberties and the river, means the space for buildings will be smaller than originally thought – either they will have a smaller footprint, or there could be fewer of them.

The Festival Pier area is actually a conglomeration of seven piers or partial piers: 27, 27 and 1/2, 31, 32, 33, 34 and 35. Piers 31 through 34 are the newest, built in the 1960s and former site of the East Central Incinerator. Pier 27, a former shipping pier, was built in the early 1900s, Forkin said. Pier 27 and 27.5, which were more recently the city’s impound lot, are where Live Nation events are held. All piers are regularly tested and have been deemed safe for current uses.

Forkin said the study will be complete in about two months, and the exact areas where pier portions are likely to be removed and “returned to free-flowing river” will be known then.

The reasons for shrinking the site have nothing to do with the conditions of the piers’ piles – the supports that go into the riverbed – nor the decking – the portion above the water. Since the Master Plan calls for things like multi-story buildings with people living in them, a whole “independent support structure” of brand-new piles will be required, that structure will be filled, and all of the decking will be replaced. (The only thing the existing structure really does is “establish the area of what we own. It designates land controls,” Forkin said.)

It’s the “geotechnical” conditions beneath the water that determine how big the development parcel will be, Forkin said: How deep will those new piles need to be driven to reach bedrock? And will the soil surrounding the piles “grab and hug them? Or will it be loose and silty?”

With enough money, piles could be driven until they reach bedrock just about anywhere. This is always expensive, but Forkin said developers are more used to the cost and needed technology to drive down about 50 to 60 feet. “That’s normal, and that’s good,” he said. When you get closer to 100 feet, there’s extraordinary costs, and piles must be spliced together, he explained. “Everybody gets scared.”

The study is looking for the limits of the area where those “normal” piles are all that’s needed, Forkin said, so that development costs do not skyrocket.

A decision to shrink the footprint of the Festival Pier development area would be a practical one, said Matt Ruben, Northern Liberties Neighbors Association president and Central Delaware Advocacy Group chairman, during an update at CDAG’s Thursday night meeting.

It’s so “they can feel comfortable that the cost-per-unit (a developer would) wind up with is reasonable,” Ruben said. “They’re practically oriented. When this bid gets put out, there will be bids (on the project) and it will get done. So that’s good news.”

Ruben said based on his discussions, DRWC may be willing to show more of what they plan to do on the site, which will be similar to what’s called for in the master plan, but with scaled-back acreage. “It’s possible some of the images we saw in the plan of not super-high, but relatively high mid-rises, may have to be scaled back a little bit, too, due to site conditions.”

Forkin said the market may lead a developer to chose to build shorter, but the physical conditions beneath the piers only mean that the development acreage is smaller.

The future developer of the site would own the buildings, but lease the property under a long-term agreement with DRWC, Forkin said. It has not yet been determined whether obtaining permission to dig new piles from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be the responsibility of the developer or of DRWC, Forkin said.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal