Changing Skyline: Master plan for riverfront nearly ready

Posted: October 20, 2010

It's been almost a decade since Philadelphia started a long-overdue conversation about transforming the vacant acres along the Delaware River into a vital urban neighborhood. Yet, other than a single, suburban-style casino and some lonely high-rise condos, little change is visible on that bleak, postindustrial landscape.

The city now appears ready to stop talking and start doing.

After four decades of false starts and scattershot projects, consultants are putting the finishing touches on a detailed and focused master plan that will provide Philadelphia with step-by-step instructions for reinventing its waterfront. Now in its next-to-last draft, the plan was presented Tuesday night to neighborhood groups for what officials hope will be the final round of discussion.

Based on a presentation I saw last week, the most striking thing about the emerging master plan is the modesty of its ambition. At the same time, the proposals, even in their current rough form, appear more attainable than schemes floated in the past.

And that is mostly as it should be.

Gone are the 50-story towers that were once expected to form a spiky stockade along the six-mile length of the central Delaware, from Allegheny Avenue in the north to Oregon Avenue in the south. The plan, unfortunately, no longer maintains any pretense that the money or political will exists to fully cap the I-95 trench that brutally cuts off Philadelphia's downtown from its founding river.

Instead, the planning team, led by the same two firms that laid the groundwork for New York's successful Battery Park City, envisions a waterfront dominated by rowhouses and mid-rise apartments, even on the previously sacrosanct Penn's Landing site. It would probably take 30 to 50 years for the proposed housing to fill in the waterfront's many blanks.

Despite that lengthy time frame, the planners are urging the city to invest now in a few high-impact infrastructure projects that would set the stage for private development. The most dramatic is a large, landscaped deck that would slope from Front Street down to the river, between Chestnut and Walnut Streets, extending the existing I-95 cap over Columbus Boulevard.

The planning team also wants the city to banish concerts and other entertainment from both Penn's Landing and Festival Pier, so that those two key sites at the heart of the waterfront will be more marketable. A new, 5,000-seat venue, probably open-air, would be built as a replacement for the Great Plaza in a semi-industrial area just off I-95's Girard Avenue interchange.

While the planners would reserve some land at the north and south ends of the central Delaware for industry and big-box retailers, they expect the waterfront to evolve into a grid of streets that resembles Center City in their mix of uses and their variety of building types.

Many of the proposals in the master plan grew out of the ideas formulated by PennPraxis in 2007 after a series of citizen-driven brainstorming sessions. Like PennPraxis, the planning consultants suggest that the city can make the barren waterfront more livable by creating a necklace of 10 Rittenhouse Square-size parks at half-mile intervals. The biggest, and potentially most transformative, of those parks would become the centerpiece of a residential development on Penn's Landing.

"They should get kudos for taking a policy document developed under the Street administration and elevating it to a high level under the Nutter administration," said PennPraxis' Harris Steinberg.

All 10 parks proposed in the master plan would eventually be linked by a recreation trail along the river's edge and a separate bike path on Delaware Avenue. The planners acknowledge, however, that it is still not clear how the city will compel private owners to let the trail run through their properties. They are recommending that the trail setback vary in width, from 35 to 100 feet, depending on the size of the property.

Unlike the strategies formulated by the administrations of Ed Rendell and John Street, the new master plan is not dependent on a signature project to jump-start development. Mayor Rendell was convinced a shopping mall on Penn's Landing would bring the waterfront to life, while Mayor Street simply invited developers to make proposals for the site.

The last time Philadelphia undertook a serious master plan was in 1982, and the city was still convinced that the waterfront was the perfect spot for unwanted industrial uses. In commissioning a team of professional planners, architects, and economists to reexamine the area, the Nutter administration has returned to a more painstaking, research-based approach.

For example, the planning team - led by Cooper, Robertson & Partners, Olin, and KieranTimberlake - decided to cap building heights at eight stories after their economist, John Alschuler, concluded that the Philadelphia market is not capable of filling up dozens of skyscrapers. They believe the area around the Piazza at Schmidt's development in Northern Liberties, with its mix of rowhouses and apartments, provides a good model.

To make the six-mile stretch of riverfront more manageable, the planners divided the area into five development clusters. The team concluded that the seven-acre Festival Pier has the most potential and should be targeted first for development.

Not only is the site city-owned, it is one of the few spots along the waterfront that feels fully connected to Center City, said Alexander Cooper, the New York planner who worked on Battery Park City. Located at the foot of Spring Garden Street, Festival Pier has street frontage on Columbus Boulevard and faces a row of old warehouses. It is just a block from the Market-Frankford El station.

While that proposal was a no-brainer, some people may be surprised by the team's plans for Penn's Landing, which has long been seen as a purely recreational space. To activate the 13-acre site, the planners say it needs to be filled with a dense mix of housing, cultural uses, and shops. "I don't know why people have gotten Penn's Landing so wrong for so long," Cooper marveled.

The planners recommend inserting new buildings on almost every available scrap of land at Penn's Landing. The structures would be arrayed around the sloping park, as well as the existing boat basin, as far south as South Street.

To make the development possible, they propose tearing down the ungainly scissor ramps between Market and Chestnut Streets, which block views to the river. They would reroute buses along Dock and Front Streets. They also recommend building a new pedestrian bridge from the pier where the Chart House is located to South Street.

The success of the plan, the team members acknowledge, is dependent on the city's ability to jump-start development with the targeted infrastructure improvements. None will be cheap, and the city will have be creative in raising money for the projects.

It's the consultants' job now to provide a detailed to-do list for accomplishing the work. The final draft of the master plan is due in December.

And then the city will have to show it can do more than talk about waterfront development.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or

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