Philadelphia's promising land along its hidden river

Posted: February 26, 2012

Harris M. Steinberg

is executive director of PennPraxis of the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia is a city of hidden treasures. From the vast acreage of parkland that stretches deep into the Wissahickon Valley to the wooden paving blocks of her tiniest alleys, Philadelphia reveals herself in layers.

When the first Dutch settlers piloted their boats up the Schuylkill, they called it the "Hidden River." Unlike the broad and swiftly flowing Delaware, the tidal Schuylkill meanders gently, bending back and forth as it snakes its way from the Delaware to what is now the falls at the Art Museum. Traveling upstream you pass tank farms and auto graveyards, old cement works and the remnants of our 19th-century industrial prowess. There are also intermittent glimpses of a bucolic past, from Bartram's Garden to Woodland Cemetery's verdant slopes. It is an area of both mystery and promise.

Mystery because the lower reaches of the Schuylkill have been nearly cut off from the city by a tourniquet of infrastructure - rail lines, highways, and bridges. Until recently, the area wasn't welcoming to visitors. But things are poised to change, and that's where the promise comes in.

Since November, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. and the city's Commerce Department and Planning Commission have been working on a plan for the Lower Schuylkill - from the Grays Ferry Bridge to I-95 and from the Schuylkill Expressway on the east to Lindbergh Boulevard and Island Avenue on the west. This roughly 4,000-acre district connects Philadelphia International Airport to Center City and the Navy Yard to University City.

Why the Lower Schuylkill?

Philadelphia is experiencing the first shoots of rebirth after a 50-year decline, with a bump in population, an uptick in small-business development, and an explosion of the educational and medical sectors. The Lower Schuylkill is the locus of that burgeoning economic future.

Where else in the city do we have access to the airport, highways, rail lines, and ship traffic near 68 percent of the city's vacant and underused industrial land? Where else do we see the medical and tech sectors of University City bursting at the seams - with 65,000 jobs and more than $1.1 billion in National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation funding? And where else are we connected to the vitality of the Navy Yard, home to a Department of Energy innovation hub for energy-efficient buildings?

Imagine the possibilities:

An elegant 21st-century landscape of new industrial, office, and research buildings, historic industrial structures, sweeping recreational amenities, environmentally sensitive wetlands, and beautifully engineered bridge crossings.

State-of-the-art research and development facilities that build upon Philadelphia's leadership in the chemical, pharmaceutical, and life-sciences industries lining the riverfront, complete with the extension of the Schuylkill River Trail and parks that deftly manage storm water.

A commercial and industrial campus that applies the research and intellectual energy of our great universities and provides both educational and job opportunities.

An environmental showcase where sustainable design, bioremediation, and environmental planning practices are integrated into the fabric of the district.

A reconnected part of the city with new streets, trails, bikeways, and transit linking neighborhoods to the river and the region's recreational trail system.

A utility infrastructure brought into the 21st century, giving Philadelphia access to large-scale clean energy, biogas, and commercial composting facilities.

A rich array of employment opportunities and parcel sizes affording small businesses and start-up companies the opportunity to grow in place while remaining centrally located within the city and region.

Fantasy? No.

From Mission Bay in San Francisco to the Route 128 Corridor outside Boston, and from Silicon Valley to the Research Triangle, we've seen the exponential power born of the combination of applied research, product development, and manufacturing. Philadelphia has the opportunity to lay the groundwork for the creation of a modern urban industrial campus.

We've done these kinds of projects before. From developing the Philadelphia General Hospital into a top-tier life-sciences campus to the repositioning of the Navy Yard into a dynamic center for old and new industries, the city has demonstrated the gumption, tenacity, and vision to implement long-range, transformative projects.

The Lower Schuylkill promises to be all that on steroids. Hidden no more, this area has the potential to become a clean, green, urban machine that will power the economic engine of Philadelphia well through the 21st century.


E-mail Harris M. Steinberg

at harrisst@design.upenn.edu.

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