Reclaiming the riverfront

Penn Praxis plan for Delaware riverfront Green space abounds in the Penn Praxis plan for the Delaware riverfront.

The concrete pillars of I-95, desolate brownfields, high-rise condos and industrial warehouses dominate seven miles of waterfront along the Delaware River.

But according to the vision forwarded last month by the University’s faculty and student design clinic, Penn Praxis, Philadelphia’s riverfront doesn’t need to look that way.

Picture instead a pedestrian-friendly area, with the city grid extending all the way to the waterfront. Throw in public transit, mixed-use development and open space, including parks to help preserve the integrity of the river, and the city, says Penn Praxis, could be utterly transformed.

The Penn Praxis report, “Civic Vision for the Central Delaware,” outlines just this vision, which includes building the city back to the river, honoring the role the Delaware has played in the city’s history, planning development carefully and creating a livable and walkable community between Oregon and Allegheny Avenues, from the river to I-95.

Harris Steinberg, adjunct assistant professor in the School of Design and the director of Penn Praxis, says “the traditional development patterns in Philadelphia which have been negotiated, are on a parcel-by-parcel basis and have not had any sort of comprehensive plan behind them.” So the Penn Praxis report represents the first comprehensive plan for the city in nearly three decades.

In July of 2006, Councilman Frank DiCicco asked Penn Praxis to come up with a report on Philadelphia’s waterfront—on the condition that it was open to the public and transparent. Mayor Street signed an executive order authorizing the work, funding was provided by the William Penn Foundation and the report was released to a largely positive response last month.

“It was a big, open, sometimes contentious and ultimately rewarding process,” says Steinberg. “In the end, the vision has been extremely well-received. Some in the development community are suspicious of some of the recommendations. It’s really a long-term conversation [and] it’s just the beginning.”

During the 13-month process, Steinberg and his Praxis team looked to New York, Chicago, Seattle, Barcelona, Rotterdam and other places to assess ways in which people balance ecological concerns with recreation, housing and entertainment needs. They then filtered ideas through Harris Sokoloff, faculty director on the Penn Project on Civic Engagement, who helped the Praxis team create a framework for several public forums.

What remains to be seen is whether Philadelphia has the civic and political will to realize a vision for the waterfront. Any change, Steinberg acknowledges, must come from a broad coalition.

If something isn’t done, expect more of the same down by the river, he says. “Many of the projects that are on the drawing board are tall condominium towers with parking that don’t contribute to an enhanced quality of life,” he said.

Still, Steinberg is hopeful that the overall reform movement sweeping the city will extend to the riverfront. Even in the short term, smaller projects such as a bike trail, or an environmental cleanup could make a real difference.

“I’m a consummate optimist—a born and bred Philadelphian who believes in this city,” Steinberg says. “We’ve done it in the past—we’ve created Fairmount Park, the Ben Franklin Parkway. Those are textbook examples of city planning.”

Originally published Dec. 6, 2007.

Originally published on December 6, 2007