Changing Skyline: Should the duck boats be on the Schuylkill - at all?

A Ride the Ducks boat cruises the Delaware River. Since a fatal crash on the Delaware in July, the company has eyed the Schuylkill as a site for its amphibious tours.
A Ride the Ducks boat cruises the Delaware River. Since a fatal crash on the Delaware in July, the company has eyed the Schuylkill as a site for its amphibious tours.
Posted: January 21, 2011

The people who run the Ride the Ducks tours may be quackers, but they're not stupid. Recognizing the public opposition to their plan to tear up Philadelphia's beloved Schuylkill Banks park, they've come up with a new spot for their boat launch, a sliver of land on the west side of the river, in the shadow of I-76.

Although the new route was submitted to the city in late December, the Nutter administration has kept the contents a virtual state secret while it negotiates a financially - and politically - acceptable deal with the tour company. But details began leaking out after Ride the Ducks presented the scheme Jan. 4 to the Parkway Council, an influential alliance of the boulevard's cultural institutions.

The new route will certainly make a duck boat operation on the Schuylkill more palatable to some Philadelphians. The company has scrapped its outrageous plan to cut a trench through a lush section of the popular waterfront park, and would instead access the river from a bit of waste ground on the opposite bank.

But the question remains: Should the lumbering boats be on the Schuylkill at all?

It's not an easy one to answer. Until now, all the attention has been on the land-based issues.

How would the bus-size, amphibious craft travel crosstown from their nest near Independence Hall to Center City's west side? How would the noise from the ducks' kazoo-playing riders affect the elegant atmosphere along the city's museum-lined Parkway? Would the noise and traffic compromise one of Philadelphia's few waterfront success stories?

Now, it's time for a serious examination of the water issues. Ride the Ducks decided to move its tours to the Schuylkill after being involved in a fatal crash in July on the busy Delaware River, where its boats were mere specks amid the tankers and barges. While the Schuylkill rarely draws more than a few kayakers to the area below the dam, the park's champions believe recreational boating has potential to grow. But will small craft be safe when the ducks are the biggest fish on the river? It's not clear who will respond to an acccident - the Coast Guard or the city police.

In Version 2.0 of the ducks plan, Parkway Council members told me, the amphibious boats would still follow the same crosstown route along Arch Street, before heading up the Parkway, and around Eakins Oval, to reach the water. But now the vehicles would keep going, continuing over the Schuylkill on Martin Luther King Drive.

Once on the west side, the duck boats would make a left turn onto the Schuylkill's narrow bank and begin their descent to the water. Since this part of the drive is a notorious speedway, Ride the Ducks would need to install a stop sign or signal at the company's own expense to enable its boats to turn onto the bank safely.

The new plan is a big improvement over the trench, but a west-bank launch doesn't solve all the problems with the amphibious tours. Nor did it completely win over the Parkway Council.

Members remain worried about noise - not just on the Parkway, but also emanating from the river, said Happy Craven Fernandez, president of Moore College of Art & Design, which fronts on Logan Square. In a Jan. 6 letter sent to Mayor Nutter and Managing Director Richard Negrin, the council asked that a "no-quack zone" be declared for the entire area west of City Hall.

And they want that in writing.

"It's not just for us on the Parkway," explained Fernandez. "People want peace and quiet on the trail. They might listen to music through their headphones, but they want to be able to choose their own noise."

The council was more mixed on the subject of the traffic signal, which would be activated by the duck-boat driver. On one hand, it could help calm traffic from the drive, which now pours into Eakins Oval at top speed. A year ago, a young bicyclist was badly injured when a motorist failed to stop at a pedestrian crosswalk near the Schuylkill Banks trailhead.

At the same time, some council members worry that left-turning duck boats could create a new hazard.

The section of King Drive that crosses the river is one of the city's most treacherous for pedestrians and bicyclists. Sidewalks are so narrow that people walk single-file. And there are no marked bike lanes. What precautions, the council members wondered, could be taken to protect people who come to the area for recreation?

All in all, the council's Jan. 6 letter concluded, they'd rather see the ducks stay on the Delaware.

The William Penn Foundation, which has donated several million dollars for Schuylkill Banks improvements, including several floating docks, is worried about the ducks' impact on the river. In a Dec. 1 letter to the Schuylkill River Development Corp., which oversees the river park, the foundation expressed concern that Ride the Ducks could crowd out recreational boaters. The company plans to send 60 boats a day into the Schuylkill during its peak summer season.

But the Center City District's Paul Levy, also a member of the Parkway Council, believes there is room enough on the Schuylkill for duck boats and kayaks alike. He also questions the noise concerns, given the steady hum from the expressway traffic.

"Frankly, I think people won't even notice the boats," he argued. "This is a big city. If you're going to be hospitality-oriented, you have to put up with a certain amount of noise."

That said, Levy believes the Delaware probably remains the better environment for the duck boats to operate. The Coast Guard has given the tours permission to return to that river.

Schuylkill vs. Delaware? The argument is really academic. Until the National Transportation Safety Board issues its report explaining why two people died in July during a routine Ride the Ducks tour, it's too soon to choose.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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