Delaware waterfront plan is released to the public

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation has released their long-awaited master plan for the central Delaware waterfront to the public.  They had a public presentation at the Festival Pier on June 13 and recently made the plan available for download and public comment on their website.  The plan is a comprehensive blueprint to be followed for the development of the waterfront, by public and private entities, over the next 25 to 30 years.  The DRWC will allow public comment on their website until August 25.

The plan, developed by the DRWC, New York firm Cooper Robertson & Partners, HR&A Advisors, OLIN, and KieranTimberlake, proposes numerous new parks connected by a running/walking/biking trail along the seven-mile stretch of the planning area, from Allegheny Avenue south to Oregon Avenue.  It would encourage use of the waterfront by adding many new public amenities and improving access to it across Delaware Avenue/Columbus Boulevard and by improving I-95’s underpasses (and covering a small portion of the highways at Penn’s Landing).  The planners would like to encourage improvements, first, around four “priority sites”: Washington Avenue, Penn’s Landing, Spring Garden/Festival Pier, and Penn Treaty Park.  The plan mentions several early steps, such as new parks, that can be accomplished in coming years.  The section of the waterfront in South Philadelphia would have a few apartment buildings, some industry (near major shipping terminals), and various parks, which would include natural wetland preserves right on the river bank.  Further up, the plan envisions replacing the Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing with a grass lawn, covering over I-95 leading to the former Great Plaza, having development around the new lawn on the current parking lots, and having low-rise buildings with retail on the parking lots near South Street and the Moshulu.

The area north of the Ben Franklin Bridge would see more parks and a few highrises along the waterfront, with the addition of more boating marinas, and mid-rise residential development along Delaware Avenue and Spring Garden Street, adjacent to the Spring Garden Street El Station.  The upper area, between Delaware Avenue and the river, would be developed with a neighborhood, based on a traditional North Philadelphia grid pattern, with low to mid-rise buildings.  There would be a new avenue laid out in the middle of the neighborhood, parallel to the river, that would have retail for the neighborhood.  The old PECO building, north of Penn Treaty Park, would be renovated into a large museum and an outdoor theatre and concert venue, in a new park, would be constructed just north of that building.  The uppermost portion of the central Delaware waterfront would have parkland, wetland preserves, some sites for new residential development, and some light industrial areas.  The whole stretch could very likely have a light rail, already being planned by PATCO and the Delaware River Port Authority, that could connect to proposed light rail down Market East and extending to the Sports Complex, and bike lanes along Delaware Avenue/Columbus Boulevard.  The running trail, along the river, would be similar to the expanding one on the Schuylkill River and would have greenery along it, but also, mid-rise buildings with retail along the trail.

The plan is very extensive and includes many great ideas.  A lot of people want to see I-95 buried underground, for most of the stretch along the central Delaware, but I think that could be a bad idea.  I-95 is the busiest expressway on the East Coast, so many, many people pass through the city along the highway.  That makes the trip through the city a great chance for people to the see the city who otherwise may not.  I think it would be a bad thing if those traveling through the city would have to pass through a tunnel for several miles in the heart of the city. Do we really want people’s memories of Center City to be a tunnel, and miss the great views of the skyline, the Ben Franklin Bridge, and Northern Liberties?

I do have two big disagreements with the plan.  The first is that I think it would be a mistake to replace the Great Plaza with a plain grass lawn.  I think the Great Plaza is a well planned venue for events and a lawn would be less functional for the many events that Penn’s Landing is known for.  There are already many plain grass lawns, along Front Street, that aren’t getting enough use and, also, having a lawn as the focal point of Penn’s Landing seems like an extremely unimaginative idea for the center of an urban waterfront.  It would be better to renovate the Great Plaza and build a park over the highways (since the highways are already below grade, then a tunnel wouldn’t be inappropriate there) and have new development on the current parking lots with a mix of retail, highrise condos, and additional public spaces (including a wading pool/fountain that would be used as an ice skating rink in the winter).

Another big disagreement that I have with the plan is the idea to “encourage” low and mid-rise development on most development sites, even along major avenues and adjacent to the waterfront trail.  I think it would be a waste to use such prime development sites along Delaware Avenue, Spring Garden Street, the new avenue north of Penn Treaty Park, and the trail, for low-rise development.  It would make sense to concentrate dense highrise housing along wide and busy avenues and near train stations, especially the Spring Garden Street El Station, as well as, on the larger development sites along the trail near downtown.  The DRWC website says that the idea of low-rise development is to “maintain a character consistent with current Philadelphia building vocabulary”, whatever that means, and “near-term market conditions”, but should we be determining the height of waterfront development for the next 30 years based on near-term market conditions?  I think we should let the free market and neighborhood groups determine the height of future buildings and not impose any height limitations, if market demand and neighborhood groups allow for highrise development.  If the waterfront plan is as successful as the planners hope, and it seems likely that it will be, then there should be enough demand for many highrises, especially north of the Ben Franklin Bridge, considering the fact that five highrises have already been built along the central Delaware waterfront (with three more certainly to be built at Waterfront Square and the SugarHouse Casino) and half a dozen built along Front Street, with two more planned for Old City and three planned for Northern Liberties, even without the amenities detailed in the master plan.  Indeed, with all the new amenities and improved access planned along the waterfront in this plan, then the value of the land may be too expensive for developers to turn a profit without building highrises.

Anyway, the plan mostly sounds like a great blueprint for a more active and accessible waterfront.  There are already many attractions along the waterfront, such as the historic ships, the Great Plaza (which I hope they keep), Dave and Buster’s, the Independence Seaport Museum, the Race Street Pier, and the SugarHouse Casino.  Coming attractions include the new House of Blues concert venue, the Philly Fringe Festival studio and restaurant at Race Street, and an expansion of the casino.  Also, at the public presentation on June 13, there was a member of a community group that would like to buy the USS Olympia and keep it on the waterfront, and he told the members of the question and answer panel, at the end of the presentation, about their plan.  The panel members included Mayor Nutter, Councilman DiCicco, DRWC Director Thom Corcoran, and the planners who wrote the plan, so maybe some collaboration for this group’s plan could occur and the historic Olympia, the last surviving warship from the Spanish-American War, could remain here.  Also, there are many people who have considered plans to save and reuse the SS United States for reuse as a hotel and resort of some kind, that would be docked along the Delaware waterfront.  All these attractions and new amenities would complement the growing number of attractions along the Camden waterfront, which will soon include an expanded waterfront trail, a new park north of the Ben Franklin Bridge, and converting Petty’s Island into a large nature preserve.

If you would like to see the DRWC summary of the report, you can view this link, here.  If you would like to view and/or download the master plan, you can get to it from this link, here.  And finally, if you would like to comment about the plan, perhaps you agree with my ideas or you have your own, then you can access this link to comment by August 25.  And, if you’re interested in buying, selling, or renting a home or investment property along the Delaware waterfront, feel free to contact me at gabriel@thecondoshops.com or check out my Facebook realtor page, Gabriel G. Philly Realtor.  You can, also, look at our Condo Shop website, www.thecondoshops.com, where you can list your property, and sign onto our Condo Shop Facebook page, here.

Rendering of improvements, along the Delaware waterfront, at Spring Garden Street

Race Street Pier

Ben Franklin Bridge from Race Street Pier

Future home of the Philly Fringe Festival studio and restaurant

Rendering of the new House of Blues concert hall

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About gabrielcgottlieb

I am a real estate agent at Long & Foster Real Estate Center City and someone who likes to write about development and urban planning in the City of Philadelphia. Contact me at Gabriel.gottlieb@LNF.com if you are interested in buying or selling a home or investment property in Philadelphia.
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