Philly pier evolves from immigration point to industrial site to innovative park

    Philadelphia has seen the opening of many parks this summer. The latest will be a permanent fixture on the Delaware River. 

    Washington Avenue Pier is built atop what used to be Pier 53, a dilapidated industrial site taken over by wildlife and rot. The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation stripped away much of the wildlife, laid a gravel path, built a wooden boardwalk over the water, and left behind some of that rot.

    Some of the pier’s old structure – including worn pilings and joists – still emerge during low tide. They create tide pool habitats for fish, turtles, and curious people wishing to explore the water’s edge.

    “You can come here on a picnic, and three hours later it will look totally different,” said Scott Quitel of Applied Ecological Services, the park project director. “Next year, this will look different — there might be a bad ice storm and it will resculpt something. That’s literally how we built this thing. We tried to build resiliency into this thing.”

    The DRWC has loaded up the old pier with a lot of expectations: the new park needs to be an access point to the river, a testing site for new ecologically sustainable design, a site for art, a site for history, and a lure to attract new waterfront development.

    It is the second pier park of the Delaware River Master Plan – a guide developed by the DRWC for development of the waterfront. The first was the Race Street Pier, a much more manicured park a mile north, with two tiers of walking paths and no direct access to the water.

    “The Race Street was the first major down payment on the redevelopment of public amenities along the waterfront,” said Alan Greenberger, the city’s deputy mayor of economic development. “This pier is very different. It does the same thing in a different way.

    “It has a major piece of art by Jody Pinto, it has a naturalistic edge, and it lets the river influence the quality and character of the land in a way that a very tailored park like Race Street couldn’t do.”

    The park is a $2.1 million investment in the future development of the waterfront. The master plan calls for parks every half mile, creating a magnet for mixed-use housing and retail. It also calls for developing connector streets across I-95 and Columbus Avenue in an attempt to extend neighborhood traffic to the water’s edge.

    “Public access is the single most important thing – people had no way to access the site,” said Tom Corcoran, president of the DWRC. “The second is celebrating the history of the pier. A lot of people have forgotten that this was Philadelphia’s immigration station.”

    Between 1870 and World War I, Pier 53 processed about a million immigrants, mostly from England and southern Europe.

    When sculptor Jodi Pinto began exploring the site to create a piece of commissioned public art, she learned this is where her Italian ancestors arrived in America.

    “I realized, oh my lord, my grandparents were processed and came to Philadelphia on this pier, and settled in South Philly,” said Pinto, known for her “Fingerspan” (1987) bridge in Fairmount Park near Wissahickon Creek.

    Pinto created “Land Buoy,” a 47-foot mast at the tip of Washington Avenue Pier. Its first 16 feet are a spiral staircase allowing visitors to get a crow’s-nest view of the river and New Jersey beyond. The top 7 feet is blue, semi-transparent fiberglass that illuminates at night from solar-powered batteries.

    “Buoys actually are directional markers for ships at sea. This is a marker for the long journey, and the end of the long journey,” said Pinto.

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