Winning Bacon Student Competition team talks about plan for the I-95 corridor

A two-person team from the University of Toronto won this year’s Ed Bacon student competition for their approach on I-95.

This year’s challenge, titled INTERSECT, asked teams to re-imagine the I-95 corridor. The winning design, chosen from 57 entries, took a variety of approaches, from burying short sections of the highway to building a grand staircase-like structure that would link the waterfront to the city at Market Street.

Here is a bit more about the winners, Clara Romero and Rene Biberstein, and their design, called “Float Your Boat.” PlanPhilly conducted this interview by email the week before the awards. Romero and Biberstein chose to submit single answers as a team.

Name: Clara Romero
Age: 29
Hometown: Madrid, Spain
Current degree program: Master of Urban Design (MUD)
Any other degrees held: Professional degree in Architecture, ETSAM (UPM)
Relevant work experience: Architect, JSV Arqitectos, 2009-2010
Junior Architect, Arx Arqitectos, 2006-2008

Name: René Biberstein
Age: 30
Hometown: Toronto, Canada
Current degree program: Master of Urban Design (MUD)
Any other degrees held: Bachelor of Urban and Regional Planning
(BURPl.), Ryerson University.
Relevant work experience: Junior Planner, The Planning Partnership
(www.planpart.ca), 2007-2011

PlanPhilly: What was the most difficult part of the I-95 project you were assigned for the competition, and what made it difficult?

The team: The scale of the study area was a challenge. We found ourselves continuously switching between the big picture–the I-95 corridor and waterfront (and sometimes the whole city)–and the finer details of our interventions. We knew we couldn’t design all the details, so we had to think carefully about what to highlight.

Of course, there was a temptation to simply eliminate that segment of I-95 or bury the whole thing. However, we think it’s important for cities to find ways to work with necessary infrastructure and incorporate them into the livable urban condition we all want.

As with all ideas competitions, there was a tension between pragmatism and idealism. It’s often hard to know how far you need to push the design, and when you need to stop.

PlanPhilly:
There are some local efforts focused on or near I-95. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is re-building the highway. And the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, a quasi-city agency, has completed a master plan aimed at re-connecting the city to the waterfront.  It’s largely I-95 that separates the two. 
Did you consider this other work when developing your proposal? If so, in what ways did the work inform your proposal?

The team: Philadelphia has been trying to reconnect with its waterfront for a long time. We agree with the overall aims of these projects, including the current master plan, but we also had different specific ideas that we wanted to address. Foremost amongst these was the desire for each neighbourhood of the city to reach eastward, and to produce a waterfront of distinct segments.

PlanPhilly: Your design proposes different approaches for different areas up and down I-95, including commercial activity at the southern end, a canoe-rental plaza and a stair-like structure at Market Street that would provide views to City Hall. How did you determine what approach to take for each area?

The team: We wanted everyone to stake their own claim to a piece of the waterfront, so to speak. Philadelphia is a city of distinct
neighbourhoods, and there is something interesting about having a series of associated precincts along the Delaware (and potentially the Schuylkill as well).

The grand steps and the axis between the river and city hall was a way to roll forward the monumental character of the Center City segment: the Penn plan, Independence Mall, the Franklin Parkway, etc. To the south, we focused on more neighbourhood and community friendly programs, and finally to employment and industrial programs.

PlanPhilly:
  What is your favorite element of your design, and why?

The team: The monumental steps to the water, and with spaces for docking boats, was one of the first images that came to us, and we think it remains one of the most powerful. We also were very pleased with the way we were able to integrate the design into larger hypothetical systems of public transit expansion, and a new boulevard and trail.

A waterfront trolley line is a powerful symbol of Philadelphia’s urbanism transversing the I-95. But it has to be contemporary and
practical, rather than nostalgic, in design.

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