A playful pop-up at Spruce Street Harbor Park

Metal treelike structures will provide mists of water at the pop-up Spruce Street Harbor Park, Spruce Street and the Delaware River, with floating barges and flower beds.
Metal treelike structures will provide mists of water at the pop-up Spruce Street Harbor Park, Spruce Street and the Delaware River, with floating barges and flower beds.
Posted: June 28, 2014

Last summer, landscape architect David Fierabend was tasked with turning a vacant lot on Broad Street into a peaceful pop-up garden for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The best indication that his woodland garden - shaded by a copse of graceful honey locusts - had succeeded? How little visitors noticed his handiwork.

"People would come in and say, 'David, you're really lucky these trees were here,' because they seemed like they belonged," said Avram Hornik of Four Corners Management, which worked on the pop-up. "And that's the skill. You can't train someone to do that. Either you have it or you don't have it - and David has it."

Over the last few years, that skill has made Fierabend (pronounced FEER-ra-ben), principal at Groundswell Design Group based in Hopewell, N.J., the go-to design mind for turning ugly and underutilized corners of the city into inviting temporary and permanent "outdoor lifestyle spaces" - that is, pop-up parks, beer gardens, and restaurants.

His latest extreme makeover, which opens to the public Friday, is the rebranded $700,000-plus Spruce Street Harbor Park, once an uninspired stretch of land along Columbus Boulevard. The temporary design, commissioned by the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC) as a way to generate excitement and spur development along the river, transforms the park into a destination with boardwalks, swaying hammocks, and a floating restaurant.

Fierabend likens his work to set design, but with a sense of permanence. "I want to invoke an emotion," he said.

Gesturing out toward the barges, where shipping-container concession booths were already installed and workers in a rowboat were coaxing a series of floating garden beds into place, he added, "Look at the flags flapping in the breeze, the trees swaying, and the grasses: I want visitors to feel something that taps into childhood experience, or a really nice moment in their life."

It's more than just landscaping: "We're now involved in this place-making business in Philadelphia," he said.

He has at least eight such projects underway this summer from Wilmington to New York. Many are playful reimaginings of summer in the city.

His work with the DRWC - begun in winter when he and Hornik helped reinvigorate the Blue Cross RiverRink by, as he puts it, "dropping a winter wonderland into a parking lot" - includes a beach-inspired update to Festival Pier.

He's also collaborating with restaurateur Michael Schulson on the industrial-cool Independence Beer Garden due to open for summer July 4 on Independence Mall; advising PHS on its South Beach-inspired pop-up on the 1400 block of South Street; designing a plaza and restaurant for FringeArts on Columbus Boulevard; and planning to enliven the Camden waterfront with a beer garden for Cooper's Ferry Partnership.

After that, he may endow 2 Penn Plaza, across from City Hall, with rolling hills in an homage to California wine country that would be PHS' first autumn pop-up.

It's quite a client list given that Fierabend, who is 55, launched Groundswell just seven years ago.

Landscape architecture was a second-act career, the first being the manufacture and sale of knitwear. Fierabend had inherited a store called Knits and Pieces.

"It probably wouldn't have been my choice," he said, "but it happened to be wildly successful." Eventually, the business included 20 shops along the East Coast.

But Fierabend, who has homes in Northern Liberties and Princeton, had grown up in a family of horticulturists, and never lost his love of gardening. In 2000, he decided to sell the company, return to school, and follow his passion.

It turned out that a retailer's savvy paired with a landscape architect's sensibility made a compelling combination. While Fierabend was working on his graduate thesis, he partnered with Princeton University on a project that won an American Institute of Architects award. Business began rolling in.

In 2011, that included the design for Aimee Olexy and Stephen Starr's Talula's Garden - a lush, romantic space on Washington Square that was Groundswell's big break in Philadelphia. It got the attention of clients such as Hornik, who called on him to outfit his waterfront bar, Morgan's Pier.

PHS knew Groundswell from the Flower Show, where it won a People's Choice Award in 2011. The organization turned to the firm last year to help build a showstopping pop-up garden on a shoestring budget.

"He's got that really keen eye and innate talent for understanding how spaces can be used," PHS chief of staff Nancy Goldenberg said. The temporary beer garden attracted 30,000 visitors; the site is now slated for a residential high-rise.

Groundswell tends to collaborate with local artisans, fabricators, and scenic designers. At Spruce Street Harbor Park, he mined that well of talent for such features as a spray park of metal "trees" by Frank's Kitchens.

There's also a newly laid boardwalk, art galleries, bocce and shuffleboard courts, floating sandboxes for the kids, a fire pit, a sandy beach on the existing quay, and shipping containers that will house food service by Jose Garces.

While some grandiose plans were abandoned, he was determined to realize others, like the cantilevered hammock lounge over the river.

"I'm a little bit of a dreamer. It scares my office," he said. "But we have a nice balance in our office of dreamers and people who are pragmatic."

He doesn't talk much about designing restaurants, or parks or bars; he talks about creating "moments" - a Zen moment when 300 LED lights will simulate rainfall in the trees, or a playful moment where carnival games line the boardwalk.

Other improvements are just making the best of what's there: hanging 80 hammocks from the abundant trees, and restoring a fountain that had been out of service for 17 years.

The idea is to consider everything, but overthink nothing. It's a matter of dispensing with the formalities.

"Everyone always likes to go home and sit in a chair in their backyard. So I like to create that casual feel to a park, instead of scripted paths," he said. "I take a holistic approach to creating a feeling."


IF YOU GO

Spruce Street Harbor Park, Columbus Boulevard at Spruce Street, open Friday to Aug. 31.

Hours: Park and oasis open daily, 11 a.m.

to 1 a.m.; boardwalk concessions and games open daily, 11 a.m.

to 10 p.m.

Parking: Lots at Lombard Circle, Walnut and Market Streets at Columbus Boulevard.

Opening-day events: See Sprucestreetharborpark.com.


smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

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