New link in Schuylkill trail opens in corner of Grays Ferry

Posted: June 11, 2012

Blocked by industrial buildings, the Schuylkill has long lived up to its Dutch name — hidden river — for the communities that border it.

Monday, one segment of the river officially comes out of hiding with the new Grays Ferry Crescent park, opening up a once-polluted tract to walkers, bicyclers, fishermen, and wildlife enthusiasts.

The park has cost city and state agencies and private donors $2.85 million to construct. It is the latest phase of an ongoing effort to line the length of the Schuylkill in Philadelphia, from Fairmount Park to Fort Mifflin by Philadelphia International Airport, with trails.

"Two years ago, this was a vacant industrial site," Schuylkill River Development Corp. CEO Joseph Syrnick said Friday, gesturing out over the 11-acre Grays Ferry Crescent park. Along the 0.7-mile trail that winds through the park, he pointed out meadows where geese, osprey, and heron flock, whimsical metal bicycle sculptures serve as artful bike racks, and a shaded area under a bridge is slated to become a skateboard park.

Syrnick said about 50 people from the neighborhood enjoyed the park last weekend, even in advance of its grand opening. On Friday, several men were fishing on the park's brick terrace.

"I think this is just the best idea they've come up with, in terms of fishing," city resident Darrell Wallace said. He used to drive to Conshohocken to fish. But his car broke down and he sold it rather than repair it, and he was glad to discover the Crescent, a 10-minute bike ride from his home.

"This is closer than anything else," he said. "I didn't even know this existed. I thought it was a waste plant."

As a matter of fact, a recycling plant does stand right behind the park. On windy days, Syrnick said, it brings a faint odor.

Edison Clayton used to fish on this patch of the Schuylkill even when it was mostly devoid of wildlife and owned by DuPont Co. DuPont sold its laboratory here to the University of Pennsylvania in 2010. That was two years after the Schuylkill River Development Corp. removed and covered over hazardous chemicals that had accumulated in the soil since it was home to a paint manufacturing plant in the 1850s.

On Friday, Clayton went to fish and found the newly landscaped park. "This is much better," he said, pointing out the comfort and safety the new benches and metal railing offer anglers. A moment later, he pulled in a hefty catfish.

Mayor Nutter planned to attend the grand opening, along with representatives of agencies that funded the project, including the state Department of Environmental Protection, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the philanthropic William Penn Foundation.

After the speech-making, attendees at the 11 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony can enjoy a free picnic lunch or take to the trail on bikes that will be available for public use.

The park will offer more community events during the summer, including free movie nights and a public art festival, according to Danielle Gray, communications manager of the Schuylkill River Development Corp.

Syrnick estimated upkeep of the park, which will be split between the city's Parks and Recreation Department and the development group, will cost each organization about $40,000 per year.

But even as it completes Grays Ferry Crescent, the development group is turning its attention to bigger plans.

More than a decade ago, the corporation was responsible for extending the Schuylkill River Trail from Fairmount Park past the Art Museum to Locust Street. Today, Syrnick said, that Upper Schuylkill stretch gets more than 19,000 joggers, in-line skaters, dog walkers, and other recreational users every week.

Grays Ferry Crescent is one piece of the corporation's grand vision to build an unbroken trail all the way to Fort Mifflin.

The group is set to build a half-mile boardwalk, starting at Locust Street, where the current Upper Schuylkill trail ends, to extend the path even where it is squeezed by railroad tracks close to the river's edge. Construction workers will start building that boardwalk in the river this summer.

Next, Syrnick would like to see an abandoned railroad swing bridge at Grays Ferry Crescent refurbished to serve as a working link in the trail. He projects that renovating the bridge — now coated in rust and permanently pivoted so that it is uncrossable — would cost $6 million.

"Extension of the trail to Grays Ferry puts Bartram's Garden in spitting distance," said Penn School of Design professor Harris Steinberg, referring to the Southwest Philadelphia pastoral landmark across the river that the developers have identified as their next goal on the trail's march south. "Success breeds success."

As executive director of Penn Praxis, the Design School's program for working on projects with the city, Steinberg has advocated a plan to draw new businesses to the Lower Schuylkill area. The trail, he said, is a key piece of that initiative.

"The trail will be seen as a really important development and selling point for bringing new jobs and new workers," he said. "It's a wonderful amenity. It's really beautiful. You feel like you're in another whole world down there."

Contact staff writer Julie Zauzmer at 215-854-2771 or jzauzmer@philly.com.

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