Sneaking a peak at the Delaware River Trail

Oct. 22, 2009

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

Starting behind the South Philadelphia Wal*Mart is a snippet of waterfront trail so new it hasn’t even officially opened yet.

The interim Delaware Riverfront Trail, a joint project of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation and the Center City District, begins just before the vast parking lots of the big box stores, near Pier 70. It hugs the river behind the Foxwoods Casino site, then skirts across the edge of a parking lot and back out to the river until it reaches the Coast Guard station at Washington Avenue. The interim trail then follows the sidewalk along Delaware Avenue up to Lombard Circle, delineated with painted lines and bicycle symbols.

A few PlanPhilly staffers gave themselves a tour of the Wal*Mart-to-Coastguard section Thursday afternoon.  The natural beauty of shrubs and trees, dressed in the reds and golds of fall, framed views of derelict piers and birds flying over the glimmering ribbon of the Delaware River.

Over and through the vegetation, New Jersey industry could be seen. So could the S.S. United States. But at times, the vegetation – native and not –  blocks the water almost completely.

“I think over time we would hope to clear as much underbrush as we can so that there is a clear view of the water,” said DRWC president Tom Corcoran in a recent interview.

A turkey buzzard glided with the thermal currents. A large hawk perched on top of a utility pole didn’t even stir when we walked right below him. We were close enough to see his eyes, and his soft-looking belly feathers, blowing in the breeze.

It’s a peaceful place. But there is no doubt it is also an urban place. There are active businesses, including the Sheetmetal Workers, on the west side of the route. And beyond the businesses, traffic is visible, even though a lot of the noise is muted.

A few feral cats skittered away as we walked past. And underfoot, someone felt the need to decorate the trail with graffiti in one spot. (The trail will be maintained, so this will go.)

The official opening will happen in about three weeks, said Corcoran.  “There are certain operating issues we have to take care of first,” he said.

Gates have to be installed at the beginning and end so that the trail can be closed off between dusk and dawn, for security reasons, he said.  Workers were putting up the gate at the Wal*mart end of the trail Thursday.

The other issue is more delicate: The DRWC is still negotiating with two property owners for an easement. Corcoran anticipates success. He would not identify the parcels for which talks are on-going, but said they are not contiguous.

It is “theoretically possible” that if negotiations do not come through, the easement issues could stall a trail opening, Corcoran said, but he doubts that will happen. “There has been so much public effort put into it, and the William Penn Foundation gave us half-a-million to build it, and the Center City District has built it,” he said. “We will find a way.”

DRWC Vice President Joe Forkin said the interim trail is about two miles long from Pier 70 to Lombard Circle.

It is a “symbolic pilot project” to show Philadelphia what a multi-use waterfront trail could be like, he said.  Along with the restoration of Pier 11, the interim trail is an “early action item” that will eventually be incorporated into the city’s Central Delaware Waterfront master plan. The consultant who will design that long-range plan is expected to be chosen at the DRWC’s November meeting. It will take about 18 months to design the plan, and years for the entire thing to be implemented. Eventually, Forkin said, the Waterfront Trail will be seven miles long, and connect to a trail along the northern Delaware River that will run through Holmesburg, Tacony, Wissinoming and Bridesburg. Portions of that trail, which is being built by the Delaware River City Corp., are already complete.

Corcoran knows people are walking the trail, even though it’s not officially open. They are using it at their own risk, he said. But he hopes they are enjoying it.

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