Waterfront's future clearer

Posted: March 15, 2012

A dramatic vision for a transformed Delaware River waterfront will take decades to realize, but the all-important cornerstone for the vision has been cemented in place.

The city Planning Commission's approval of a new master plan for a six-mile stretch along the central Delaware was five years in the making. The effort reaches back to the tenure of former Mayor John F. Street, and taps into ideas offered by thousands of Philadelphians.

Embraced long ago by Mayor Nutter, the master plan envisions reconnecting Philadelphia to a waterfront that's been cut off by decades of now-dormant industrial activity, both north and south of Penn's Landing.

Streets truncated by I-95 and former industrial sites will be extended down to the water. The guidelines call for more low- to mid-rise buildings and a profusion of riverfront parks spaced only a half-mile apart - all of it linked by a waterfront trail.

The importance of the plan's adoption by the commission headed by architect and Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger is that it becomes part of the city's comprehensive plan. It must be taken into account in decision-making along the watefront by any city agency, particularly those handling crucial zoning rulings.

The master plan also has a powerful advocate in the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., the quasi-city agency launched under former Camden waterfront development leader Tom Corcoran.

That said, there was no assurance the plan would be adopted with the kind of no-holds endorsement given by the Planning Commission at its March 6 session.

Despite Nutter's early backing, there was sustained push-back by owners of some large undeveloped tracts, who argued that their parcels could be chopped up by extending city streets. They were also concerned about other development restrictions.

Grasped early on by drafters of the plan - including University of Pennsylvania consultants from PennPraxis - was that the street grid and other pedestrian-friendly features were needed to move the central Delaware away from its current, unsightly, car-oriented, big-box retail look.

While property owners along the river are perfectly entitled to dig in their heels, the best course for the waterfront and the city's economic hopes lies in embracing the many challenges posed by the master plan to picture the central Delaware differently.

The building blocks already are coming together under Corcoran's agency, which recently sealed the acquisition of four piers and five acres of land for the eventual trail that will connect amenities like the Race Street Pier's stunning finger park.

With the master plan a reality, there's greater hope than ever that Philadelphians will soon reconnect with their waterfront.

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