More details on south end of Central Delaware plan emerge

Whether or not Foxwoods Casino builds at its proposed site at Columbus Boulevard and Reed Street, those plotting the future of the city’s central Delaware River waterfront imagine a swath of restored wetland park based on the deteriorated piers from 53 to 70.

Planners imagine nesting platforms for osprey and eagles in some spots, including out on the end of Pier 53, where a new park called Washington Avenue Green just opened on an acre at the base of the pier.

The area where Walmart, Home Depot and their parking lots now sit would continue to host the big box stores under one scenario, but the boxes’ footprints would shrink to a more urban-friendly form, with parking perhaps underground. Master Plan Manager Sarah Thorp, who works for the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the quasi-city agency that is overseeing the development of the Central Delaware Master Plan, described the options at a Monday night public information session.

The stores are a plus because they provide jobs and goods people need, Thorp said. But based on what has  happened to big boxes in other cities, she said the planning team believes they have about 15 years of usefulness left in their current iterations. If they were to be rebuilt in a more vertical style, fronting Columbus Boulevard, city streets could be extended or created around them, and much of what is now a parking lot could become residential developments, shops and cafes.

These and other elements provided a much more detailed view of the master plan team’s vision for the southern end of the Central Delaware, from Penn’s Landing to Oregon Avenue than what was presented at an October public meeting.

Thorp and her boss, DRWC President Tom Corcoran, said that they wanted to respond to criticism that the October session did not provide the public with enough insight on the future of the southern and northern ends of the riverfront, and did not allow enough time for the public to ask questions. 

Thorp said the plans presented for the Penn’s Landing area were much more detailed than for areas in the north and south ends because the DRWC owns all of Penn’s Landing, while large swaths of those other areas are in private hands, or the hands of agencies not related to the city. It could potentially take much longer for those spaces to be redeveloped, she said.

The planners have ideas, she said, but they didn’t want to create and show detailed drawings that are not realistic.

Thorp and Corcoran have talked with more of the owners of those properties since the October meeting, she said, and so they are getting a better sense of which properties could come into public ownership.

Folks from the local Coast Guard, for example, have told the planners that they don’t have enough administrative space at their current Washington Avenue location. Corcoran said they might be interested in relocating the offices down to the Navy Yard. Such a decision, however, would have to be made at Coast Guard headquarters.

If the Coast Guard were to move, Thorp said, its rescue boats, and those of the city fire and police departments, would stay at or near the same location. No one wants to encourage more use of the waterfront and give rescue vehicles farther to travel, she said.

Should the Coast Guard move, a pavilion with boat access could be put on the site, as well as green space that would be a complement to the Old Swedes Church across Columbus Boulevard, Thorp said.

The plan that Thorp showed included two smaller white structures, which she described as bird viewing blinds.

Corcoran and Thorp have also talked to the port, which owns Piers 38 and 40 – two structures with striking architecture that are now rented out. The port wants to focus its future attention further south on the river, Corcoran said, so in coming years, “they could potentially sell” the piers.

One pier is used to store paper that comes in to Philadelphia’s port – a use that needs a riverfront location, but could be moved downriver, Corcoran said. The other is a storage facility that could be located anywhere.

These piers could be transformed into residential spaces with retail along Delaware Avenue, Corcoran said.

Several of the 30 or so people who attended the meeting were interested in hearing more about the Foxwoods site.

The fate of Foxwoods is unclear. The state gaming board’s enforcement arm has recommended the board revoke the license, which could mean that no casino would be built on the site. The board is expected to make a decision related to the license at a meeting in Harrisburg Thursday.  But even if the board decides to revoke, Foxwoods can appeal.

To cope with the uncertainty, the planning team has come up with three options, which before the plan is finished early next year will be whittled down to two: With and without casino. “With the casino or not, we still think there is the possibility of having a wetland park,” Thorp said.

If there is no casino, the area would be largely residential. If a casino does exist, Thorp said, residences might not be attractive. But a hotel would, and so would large retail outlets, revamped into a more urban style. The worst case scenario, Thorp said, would be for a casino to be built there without the master plan and the zoning that will spring from the master plan guiding the development of nearby parcels.

Thorp also provided a bit more detail on ideas for Penn’s Landing. One major component: The creation of a large park that would gradually slope down to the waterfront, helping to better connect Old City to Walnut, Chestnut and Market Streets. There would be parking beneath the green space. Other elements include a pedestrian bridge that would extend South Street down to the waterfront and a revamping of the basin.

The basin would be lined with small-scale shops and restaurants. Boats of all types could dock there.

The Seaport Museum would be redone, perhaps with more ground-floor windows and a cafe on the street, Thorp said.

On Wednesday, the DRWC and the Central Delaware Advocacy Group will hold a similar meeting focusing on the northern part of the master plan from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at First Presbyterian Church on Girard Avenue.

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