Kevin Riordan: Tom Corcoran's waterfront vision moves from Camden to Philadelphia

Tom Corcoran has worked on both sides of the Delaware.
Tom Corcoran has worked on both sides of the Delaware.
Posted: August 28, 2011

Living and working on the Camden waterfront, Tom Corcoran had a view of his future.

"I used to sit in my window," he recalls, "and look across, and daydream what I would do if I ever had the ability to affect things on the other side."

Two years after Corcoran left Camden for the presidency of Philadelphia's Delaware River Waterfront Corp., it's a tad early to assess his impact.

But the corporation's savvy master plan, under way when he arrived, already is moving to incrementally reconnect six reviving miles of Delaware River frontage with the increasingly vibrant neighborhoods nearby.

The 25-year plan calls for parks every half-mile between Oregon and Allegheny Avenues. It seeks to embrace, rather than replace, the crazy quilt of industrial, commercial, and residential developments scattered along the mighty river as it arcs through the heart of the region.

And Corcoran, a soft-spoken guy whose shrewdness is as impressive as his smile, is the skipper.

"It's one of those things that came together, like kismet," says the Chicago native, 67. "There was chemistry right away."

Corcoran is talking about his relationship with the corporation's board, Mayor Nutter, and the community.

But he could just as easily be talking about his wife, Robin Lowey, a psychologist he married seven years ago after decades of seemingly confirmed bachelorhood. The couple now live in Center City.

Corcoran's relationship with Camden began in 1975, when Mayor Angelo Errichetti hired a handful of bright young guys from the University of Pennsylvania. Corcoran became city business administrator.

When I met him in the early 1980s, he was running the Cooper's Ferry Development Association, a private agency set up by politicos and power brokers to create a version of Baltimore's Inner Harbor in Camden.

Back then, his signature crop of curly hair was darker and longer (so was mine), and his smoking was relentless (ditto). His bailiwick - a one-mile stretch of downtown waterfront in a city whose economy was disintegrating - could boast a handsome new park, a great view of the Philadelphia skyline, and little else.

More than a quarter-century later, despite the aquarium, entertainment center, ballpark, offices, and apartments that Corcoran shepherded, virtually all of them built with public subsidies, the Camden waterfront still lacks the private investment needed to create a variety of restaurants and stores to help reverse the city's fortunes.

Camden, he says, didn't have the luxury of taking the long view. The pressure to get something - anything, almost - built to help "save" the city was tremendous.

"We were always in a hurry . . . to identify projects and jump on them and make them happen," he says.

At the same time, many in the community were deeply skeptical about the waterfront, where tens of millions of federal, state, county, and city dollars ultimately created a magnificent - if underpopulated - landscape for . . . future development.

Despite his personal warmth and city residency (he lived in Fairview for years before moving to the waterfront), Corcoran was criticized by some for his supposed role in a remote "shadow government." And his relationship with the actual government, led by a succession of spectacularly unsuccessful mayors, was often rocky.

In Philadelphia, however, a "civic vision" process of public hearings and other activities engaged thousands of citizens in helping shape a vision for the waterfront. And unlike in Camden, where just a handful of residential blocks downtown connect with the Delaware, the Philly side is home to a solid stretch of reviving neighborhoods.

The master plan - set for adoption by the city Planning Commission by year's end - is different as well. It's simultaneously more ambitious and less grandiose than previous efforts.

"When people talk about Philadelphia trying to develop the waterfront for 30 years, the fact is that the only place where real planning went on was Penn's Landing," Corcoran says.

A cantilevered concrete tangle of ramps and plazas stretching south from Market Street, "Penn's Landing is maybe 25 acres, but all sorts of high-rise housing, hotels, and massive retail was supposed to be crammed into it," he continues. "Penn's Landing doesn't have to be the center of everything."

Nor does I-95 have to be demolished or buried so the waterfront can become one with the rest of Philadelphia.

Consider the Race Street underpass, which the corporation is transforming into a sleek gateway to the waterfront. At Columbus Boulevard, the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe plans to move into the grand old building across from the Race Street pier.

Now a hip destination for Philadelphians and visitors, the formerly abandoned pier offers spectacular views of the Ben Franklin Bridge, the river, and a future that has arrived.

Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845,, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at

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