Race Street Connector opens

After more than a year of planning and construction, the mayor flipped a switch, and what had been a dark portion of Race Street beneath an I-95 overpass was flooded with colorful lights.

A once blank space over the portal has become a work of art called MARQUEE that changes with the wind, ripples, tides and vessels on the river. A camera captures live images that are translated into sometimes abstract patterns of light.

And the Race Street Connector – a project of lighting, landscaping and other street-improvements meant to reinforce the connection of Old City to the waterfront, and of Race Street to the Race Street Pier park, is open.

DRWC’s Tom Corcoran and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter kick off the night

The linkage is a critical piece of the city’s long-term vision for the Central Delaware Waterfront. One of the keys to an improved waterfront, officials believe, is overcoming the barrier of I-95 and reconnecting the city to the river.

Large yellow letters and arrows pointing the way to the city and to the river are key parts of the new space beneath the overpass. They are also mounted on a metal mesh, lending an industrial feel to the project. The effect is softened by lights that slowly change colors.

Corcoran thanks participants; Old City Civic’s Ryan Berley compares the evening to a lighting event 200 years ago.

The speakers included funders, planners, elected officials and civic group leaders. Old City Civic President Ryan Berley – owner of the Franklin Fountain – said the modern lighting for improved movement and safety and waterfront connection is as ingenious as former Old City resident Benjamin Franklin’s street lamp innovations, 200 years ago.

There is also new landscaping, broader sidewalk and benches.

Watch the lights go on

The improvements were mostly limited to the south side of the street, because it was the simplest side to tackle, said DRWC President Tom Corcoran. Money for the project came from the William Penn Foundation, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the city. “Phase I implies a Phase II,” he said. The city transportation department has secured a $1.3 million grant from the Pennsylvania Community Transportation Initiative for similar improvements on the north side, Corcoran announced. Architect James Corner of James Corner Field Operations will design this side as well.

Two Old City residents talk about the Race Street Connector and Pier

“If you like what you see tonight, imagine what you’ll see one year from now,” Corcoran said.

Watch video of William Penn Foundation President and CEO Jeremy Nowak, who pledges future William Penn support for the riverfront, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger, who talks about the extreme urban nature of the space, and architect James Corner, who says it wasn’t an easy project to design, here.

See City Chief Cultural Officer Gary Steuer describe the public art element of the Connector – commissioned by his office and created by artists Richard Torchia and Greenhouse Media – and outgoing First District Councilman Frank DiCicco speak about the beginning of the realization of his goals for the waterfront here.

Before the speeches, and again after, musicians, dancers, jugglers and stilt-walkers affiliated with Philly Live Arts/Philly Fringe performed for the crowd, and then led everyone down the pathway the new project is supposed to encourage – beneath the overpass and across Delaware Avenue to Race Street Pier – for more celebration.

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com.

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