For a long time, Philadelphia’s Delaware Riverfront was…underwhelming.
Each winter, the city operated a harbor-side ice skating rink. There were also summer concerts and festivals on the waterfront, bursts of life that would fizzle out as soon as the events ended.
But most of the time, people didn’t venture down to the river. For one thing, getting to the waterfront requires finding a place to cross I-95, the 10-lane highway that cuts through the city.
More importantly, there was little to see or do.
About two years ago, that started to change.
The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, a nonprofit organization created by the city to manage waterfront development, turned its standalone ice rink into a seasonal park and winter-themed lodge.
The organizers strung up holiday lights, brought in food and beer vendors, and held holiday events and performances. DRWC called it the Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest (after the rink’s sponsor, the health insurance company).
The site went from looking like this:
(Photo courtesy of Edward Savaria/DRWC)
(Photo courtesy of Matt Stanley/DRWC)
Attendance shot up.
During the 2012–13 season, when the spot was just an ice skating rink, it brought in about 54,700 skaters, according to DRWC.
In 2013–14, WinterFest drew about 69,600 skaters, as well as an estimated 12,500 visitors who just hung out in the lodge or in the chairs outside.
DRWC didn’t stop there.
In summer 2014, the nonprofit launched Spruce Street Harbor Park, a waterfront park a few blocks south of the rink.
DRWC decorated the site, a barely-used green space and sculpture garden next to a pier, with hammocks and lights. The organizers brought in arcade games, and food and beer. They created a floating beach by connecting three barges, covering them in sand, and setting up beach chairs.
DRWC hoped to draw 100,000 visitors to the park in two months, says CEO Tom Corcoran. But Spruce Street was so successful the group kept the park open an extra month. The final visitor count: half a million people.
And this summer, DRWC turned its RiverRink Winterfest into Summerfest, a roller skating rink and boat-themed lodge that’s open from May to September.
Just like that, a long desolate stretch of the Delaware River waterfront is swarming with people.
Affordability is freedom
When cities reimagine their waterfronts, they often go for big, multi-million dollar projects, like an aquarium, a casino, a sports venue, or a string of hotels.
DRWC is doing something different. The group is starting small. And cheap.
Excluding the salaries of DRWC’s maintenance crew, Spruce Street Harbor Park cost $810,000 to build in its first season. (DRWC spent an additional $300,000 on the park this year.) Winterfest cost $500,000, and Summerfest cost $125,000.
The key, DRWC says, is buying low-cost materials and reusing them.
Take Summerfest, for example. The surface of the park is wood chips. Many of the seats are wood stumps that DRWC’s maintenance crew cut from last year’s Winterfest holiday tree.
The lodge is decorated with fishing poles and metal signs (the kind you might find at a craft store).
Old roller skates and string lights hang from a wooden pagoda in the center of the rink.
There’s even a rink-side food vendor that operates from a carved-out red shipping container.
The parks’ low cost means there’s room in the DRWC budget to make changes when something isn’t working.
In 2013, for instance, the Winterfest lodge was made of shipping containers. It was cavernous and dark, and few people went inside, said Emma Fried-Cassorla, communications manager for DRWC. The following year, the organizers made the lodge from two large, see-through heated tents, instead. The place was packed all winter.
A space for the public
DRWC hasn’t gathered statistics on the diversity of the parks’ visitors. But trip after trip, it’s obvious that visitors come from all walks of life. You’ll see men in suits, teens, families, elderly people, toddling babies, families, and couples — all of various races and ethnicities.
That may be because these parks are affordable to visit.
Spruce Street Harbor Park “seems like a place where you might have to pay to get in, but it’s free, and everyone can access it,” said Caya Simonsen, 23, from West Philadelphia, while swinging in a hammock with a friend from out of town.
Yes, you have to pay to skate, or to eat the boardwalk food or drink a beer. But you could also bring your own food, sit and read a book, or play one of the giant games of Jenga, Connect Four, or chess.
Prince Worrell, a 24-year-old North Philadelphia resident who works for Americorps, came to Spruce Street on a recent afternoon to do just that with his fellow volunteers.
Worrell pointed out that he and the other volunteers could have done something else — like seen a movie, or gone to Dave & Busters, a sports-bar style chain restaurant with arcade games — but they decided on Spruce Street. “We wanted to do something that was economical for everyone,” Worrell said.
A learning processNot all of DRWC’s parks have become instant hits.
The nonprofit doesn’t have official attendance numbers for this season yet, said communications manager Fried-Cassorla. But the Summerfest roller rink is not as heavily trafficked as Spruce Street Harbor Park, she said.
There could be a few explanations for that. For one, it can be difficult to find the Summerfest site. DRWC has installed signs pointing Spruce Street visitors to the rink. But during big events at Penn Plaza, the concert space between the two parks, visitors have to take an alternate route that’s not clearly marked.
It’s difficult to make major site modifications while the parks are open, but DRWC is hoping to make the alternate route more visible next year, Fried-Cassorla said.
It can also be hard to get people to strap on a pair of skates on really hot days, Fried-Cassorla said. The temperature in Philadelphia has reached 90 degrees at least 21 days this summer, according to preliminary data from the National Weather Service. The lodge is air-conditioned, but DRWC hopes to add more trees and shady spots next year.
This isn’t Philadelphia’s first attempt to reimagine the Delaware Waterfront.
In 1976, the city spent $13 million to transform this same section of the river into a recreational park, with walkways and a boat basin, says Harris Steinberg, executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University, and a leader of the latest public planning process for the Delaware.
Before DRWC, Penn’s Landing Corporation, a nonprofit, quasi-public development corporation, ran the waterfront development. PLC’s mission was to stimulate private development, and the organization led several failed attempts to further transform part of Penn’s Landing into a megamall.
Over the years, PLC also got a reputation for being “a secretive club run as a bastion of patronage by political insiders,” philly.com reported back in 2008.
In 2009, Mayor Michael Nutter replaced PLC with DRWC, the nonprofit organization with a smaller board and meetings open to the public.
From small to big
DRWC puts significant effort into building public spaces that people want to visit. But seasonal parks like Spruce Street, the ice rink and the roller rink are not the nonprofit’s end goal.
The group is trying to build a self-sustaining and permanent waterfront, not one that pops up and closes every season.
Besides, large swaths of the waterfront are still inaccessible. Building more seasonal parks along the river won’t fix that problem.
The parks, rather, are a way to drum up support for the city’s $250 million waterfront master plan, which calls for covering parts of the highway that cuts people off from the Delaware, improving pedestrian and bicycle access to the water, and creating a seven-mile trail along the river, among other things.
The hope is that the parks will get people accustomed to coming to the river, says Tom Corcoran, CEO of DRWC.
“And then once they do,” Corcoran said, “and the time comes for the public sector to invest more, you have a built-in political support system of people who want to see great things happen on their waterfront.”
This strategy is a form of tactical urbanism, an approach that uses low-cost, short-term projects to create long-term change in a particular public space.
Waterfronts are particularly suited to tactical urbanism, said Mike Lydon, co-author of the book Tactical Urbanism. They’re “natural magnets for people,” but they’re also often “under-programmed, under-resourced, and vacant,” Lydon said.
DRWC also hopes the foot traffic will attract developers to build commercial and residential properties along the river. Those buildings would bring jobs, housing, and tax dollars to the city. In particular, the nonprofit ultimately hopes to draw a developer to the parking lot adjacent to Spruce Street Harbor Park.
There’s a long way to go before DRWC meets all the goals of its master plan. But the success of its parks shows it’s possible to accomplish a lot on a city’s waterfront with only a little funding.
And maybe that’s not so surprising. After all, waterfronts have a “magical draw,” said Corcoran. You just “have to give people a reason to come down and experience [them].”