Connecting people to a river park

Posted: October 22, 2012

For years, it's been one of those "only in Philly" kind of conundrums:

You couldn't easily get to the Schuylkill from the place known as Schuylkill River Park.

Between the bright green oasis at 25th and Spruce Streets and the beckoning waterfront are hard-to-cross CSX railroad tracks.

Access denied - until Saturday.

A long-anticipated and fought-over pedestrian bridge that connects the park to the riverfront trail known as Schuylkill Banks opened Saturday, on time and under budget.

The $5.6 million Schuylkill River Parks Connector Bridge ($200,000 less than anticipated) welcomed its first walkers and bicyclists on a warm fall afternoon tailor-made for one of those ribbon-cutting ceremonies with oversize scissors.

At the dedication, speakers involved in the bridge's creation used words such as angst, conflict, and really complicated to describe the process of placing 95 feet of prefabricated brown steel over the tracks.

Though, yes, the bridge is attractive, it's certainly no seventh wonder of the world. So why was there so much tug and hassle in its genesis?

"To the untrained eye, this looks simple," said Rina Cutler, deputy mayor of transportation and utilities. "But it took a lot of shepherding."

There were endless community meetings, legal skirmishes, and emotional wrangling sometimes at volumes rivaling the barking coming from the shiny new dog park that's part of the new construction.

Urban planners will tell you such fights are to be expected in tight urban settings where the needs of neighborhood residents must be balanced against those of government, cyclists, dog owners, joggers - not to mention a major railroad company.

For years, the way people got from the park to the river was by playing a dangerous game with hulking freight trains.

Contractor David Curtis, 26, a longtime former resident of the neighborhood who recently moved to Wilmington, explained it this way:

A train would sit, unmoving for hours. A pedestrian or bicyclist would eye the stilled behemoth "and become incredibly tempted to hop between the railroad cars to get to the river," courting catastrophe.

CSX wound up suing the city to stop people from doing that. The bridge was part of the 2007 settlement.

Built only with federal dollars, the bridge took 15 months to complete. It includes a large, soaring concrete ramp.

"It's critically important to provide safe access to make sure folks can access the river trail," said Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner of parks and facilities for the city.

Along with the bridge, the $5.6 million paid for the dog park, as well as improvements to the park with lights, a lawn, and new paving.

"It's beautiful, functional, utilitarian, and brings us back to our rivers," said Michael DiBerardinis, parks and recreation commissioner.

Drew Davidson, 50, a Center City video editor and cyclist, agreed.

"The river is such a resource," he said. "I judge cities by how bikable they are, and this bridge makes biking along the river perfect."


Contact Alfred Lubrano

at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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