Changing Skyline: A new wave on the Delaware waterfront

FringeArts building at Columbus Blvd.and Race St.
FringeArts building at Columbus Blvd.and Race St. (TOM GRALISH /Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 06, 2014

Back in 2008, during the first giddy days of his administration, Mayor Nutter made the obligatory trip down to the Delaware to give a speech. Taking the stage in the overbuilt, underused Independence Seaport Museum, he announced that waterfront development was a top priority and that he would follow the recommendations of the new PennPraxis study. It was "a carpe diem moment" for the city, he assured the crowd.

Of course, just about every new Philadelphia mayor during the last 50 years has come into office vowing to transform the Delaware's fragmented, postindustrial wastes into a glamorous urban riviera, only to discover that the place is stubbornly resistant to megaprojects.

This time, the tide may finally be turning.

The Nutter administration has just checked off two more items on its waterfront to-do list: FringeArts' seductive new culture hub at Race Street, which officially debuts its restaurant today, and the lush Washington Avenue Green, a reclaimed pier that opened as a park in late August. Meanwhile, Spruce Street Harbor Park, a pop-up beer garden and boardwalk combo, proved so popular this summer that its rainbow-colored hammocks were worn to shreds and had to be replaced. The pop-up's life was extended to Sept. 28.

These destinations are part of a longer list of small but powerful public improvements that are altering perceptions of the barren Delaware and recasting it as a welcoming, fun place to hang out.

Nutter has by no means cracked the problem of the Delaware waterfront. There are still no megaprojects on the horizon, not even his administration's signature - a 10-acre park that would cap the great highway divide between downtown and Penn's Landing. After six years, they haven't even gotten to the point of seeking developers for the waterfront's most desirable building sites, Festival Pier and the Spruce Street boat basin.

But give Nutter a hand for doing something no recent mayor has tried: sticking with the plan. Rather than concoct distracting side deals with developers, in the style of former Mayors Ed Rendell and John Street, Nutter has allowed planners and the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. to set the pace.

We see the result in funky, low-cost, DIY-style efforts like FringeArts and Washington Avenue Green. Unlike the shimmering towers that dominate our waterfront renderings, these amenities were realized by burrowing into old waterfront structures, using the past to leverage the Delaware's future.

FringeArts took over its handsome redbrick palazzo in 2013, gradually converting an empty 19th-century pumping station into a performance venue. Designed by WRT, David Fierabend's Groundswell Design Group, and Stokes Architecture, it has more in common with Fishtown's rough-and-ready Johnny Brenda's than with the high-design Kimmel Center.

The interior was given just the lightest once-over to create an all-purpose, 220-seat theater and the 100-seat La Peg restaurant. The line between the two is intentionally blurred. All the theater seats have cup-holders, and a retractable partition opens so the space spills into the restaurant.

Fierabend, who has become king of Philadelphia beer-gardens, designed La Peg by strategically inserting relics from the pumping station. Enormous tanks, mottled with rust, dominate the soaring room, while pipes snake across the ceiling, like something out of the movie Brazil. Of course there is a beer garden on the plaza.

Although we've been told for years that the waterfront can't support commercial uses, La Peg was already packed last Friday and hardly a bike rack slot was free. It's worth noting that more than half of Harbor Park's visitors arrive without the aid of a car, waterfront officials report.

Despite being less convenient to Center City, Washington Avenue Green was also thronged its first weekend, with families exploring its shaded paths and patiently waiting to climb Land Buoy, a new, spiraling, 55-foot-tall sculpture by Jody Pinto, the artist behind the Wissahickon's Fingerspan.

Like FringeArts, the park is as much a resurrection as something new. Instead of rebuilding the crumbling pier, the city had Applied Ecological Services stabilize what was left and add a boardwalk. It feels like a peninsula that grew organically from the embankment. Huge stones from eroded columns flank its southern edge, suggesting a prehistoric past.

Because the pier once served as the city's Ellis Island, where immigrants first set foot in Philadelphia, Pinto's sculpture is a brilliant marker, simultaneously conjuring a ship's crow's nest, a lighthouse, and the spiral stairs of an immigrant rowhouse - approach, arrival, settlement, all rolled into one powerful form.

The Nutter-era master plan calls for a park every half-mile on the river. With the Race Street pier and the fishing deck at Pier 68 (now under construction), the administration is gradually realizing that goal. It would never have happened without a push from the William Penn Foundation, or its $15 million in grants.

While the parks have populated the once-deserted waterfront cheaply and quickly, they are not an end in themselves. The thinking, says William Penn's Shawn McCaney, is that "if you create infrastructure, development will follow."

So far, little has occurred. The biggest private investment on the river remains SugarHouse, a big-box casino now surrounded by parking, and soon, a massive garage. Several large factories are being renovated as housing and music venues. A new residential project, One Water Street, is supposed to break ground near FringeArts.

The apartments will help establish a permanent population for the new parks. Sadly, the street level at One Water Street is devoted to parking, perpetuating the idea of the waterfront as an inconvenient outpost. For all its commitment to the master plan's recommendations, the administration caved on requiring an active ground floor.

Nutter leaves office in 14 months. Who knows if the next mayor will be willing to stick with the plan? Nutter's legacy has been getting people to spend time at the Delaware's public spaces. His successor will have to persuade them to stay the night.


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