Spruce Street Harbor Park Pops Up on Penn's Landing

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Where thousands will frolic, the guys who are putting it all together check out the plans.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Where thousands will frolic, the guys who are putting it all together check out the plans.
Posted: June 26, 2014

THREE hundred LED light strips rain colors upon grass. Dozens of rainbow-hued hammocks dangle from sweet gum trees. Seventeen-foot-tall metal sculptures send mist onto passers-by.

A boardwalk offers concessions and classic arcade games. Hydrangea and coneflowers sprout from bean-shaped floating gardens. Six-by-10-foot net pods cantilever over the Delaware River, awaiting people brave enough to climb in and hang out.

There's a faux pebble beach with umbrellas and old-fashioned, Atlantic City-style sling-back chairs. And three full-size barges, anchored in a U-shape, capacity 225, with stenciled wooden crates planted with cedar, magnolia, thistle and grasses, and retrofitted vintage cargo containers serving local beer and cocktails and food by "Iron Chef" Jose Garces.

Did we mention shuffleboard? Fire pits with DIY s'mores? Skeeball? Bocce? Shuffleboard? Ping-pong? A steady stream of 'XPN-style tunes peppered with visits from live and local indie rockers? On occasion, gymnasts zipped into giant clear beach balls, doing backbends atop the river?

Good new summertime

After the long, cold winter, Spruce Street Harbor Park debuts tonight. The Penn's Landing pop-up extends two city blocks, from Dock Street to Spruce Street, and stretches from Columbus Boulevard to the basin's paved quay.

The unveiling this evening is for guests of a fundraiser for the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., which backs and operates the site. Tomorrow night there's a second party, sponsored by blogs Philly Love Notes and Drink Philly.

SSHP opens to the public Friday, with plans to remain open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m., through Aug. 31. Admission is free.

The site's urban-industrial-eco-day-to-night vibe isn't unfamiliar in Philly. In fact, it's right in line with a newish crop of hip summertime bars and pop-ups - the Oval at Eakins Oval, and beer gardens on South Street and Independence Mall.

The big difference with SSHP: Location.

Hammock with a view

"People are naturally drawn to the water in the summer," said DRWC rep Jodie Milkman, adding that the park is "not meant to compete with existing parks."

SSHP's creators have taken full advantage of the riverside venue, previously home to for-rent kayaks, swan and pedal boats (available again this season), docked boats and vast, empty sidewalks.

"It was a hidden gem," said Milkman, "like so many things on the waterfront, underutilized."

Landscape architect David Fierabrand is the principal of Groundswell, the Hopewell, N.J.-based firm that took the lead on designing and building the temporary space. Groundswell already worked its botanical magic on Festival Pier, Morgan's Pier and PHS pop-ups. "We really wanted to activate the water, to make it interesting enough that people come to it, and to make it artful," Fierabrand said.

The creative team - which also included local firms Digsau and Interface, among a handful of Philly artisans and craftspeople - took a first crack at the concept last winter. With the backing of the DRWC, they created Winterfest, an outdoor space adjacent to the BlueCross River Rink.

Like SSHP, Winterfest featured landscaping, fire pits and cargo containers. It also offered artsy boutiques and spiked hot cocoa and chai dispensaries.

It worked.

Cold to hot

According to the DRWC, "attendance was up 30 percent despite our wacky winter," Milkman said. In all, a record 70,000 skaters, plus thousands more spectators, fested on Penn's Landing this winter, even though snow closed the site for 13 days.

A new crowd appeared among the larger crowd, too.

"We felt [Winterfest] really broadened the audience of who you would typically see [at the River Rink]," she said. Prominent in the audience? Twentysomethings. Hipsters.

This summer, the organization expects "many thousands more," thanks to better weather, school vacations and all the stuff to do at SSHP. When SSHP closes, the DRWC plans to store its store-able components (cargo containers, even trees), to resurrect for another Winterfest, and, next summer, another Harbor Park.

Not bad, for a $500K project, paid for in part by a $310,000 grant for "creative placemaking" from the national organization ArtPlace.

"The whole premise is to create dynamic, civil public spaces along the waterfront with the theory that it'll enhance public and private development along the waterfront," Milkman said.

Will cool music, lush gardens, intimate chill-out spots, old-school boardwalk games and upscale comfort food accomplish all that? Could do. Sounds like fun, though, while it lasts.

On Twitter: @LaMcCutch

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