Philadelphia’s Graffiti Pier, a representation of the city’s street art culture that has been dotted with “no trespassing” signs for years, is one step closer to becoming a public park.

State officials on Thursday announced a $1 million grant to the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC) that will be used to acquire a six-acre stretch along the river in the Port Richmond section. The enclave includes Pier 18, a former coal loading dock that has served as the city’s open canvas since the 1990s — a place where street artists could generally work without fear of arrest.

That changed in spring 2018. As the pier exploded in popularity, largely due to Instagram fame among the urban explorer class, illicit activity grew, and Philadelphia police effectively shut down the pier. They vowed to enforce no-trespassing orders and called the pier unsafe, citing robberies, assaults, and a drowning in the area.

The DRWC reached a deal this summer with Conrail, which owned the land, to buy the stretch along the river, announcing it would convert the space into a public park and seek financing to connect the tract with the rest of the trails and public spaces along the waterfront.

The grant announced Thursday, funded by a Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources program, is a critical first step in funding the acquisition and putting the land into public control, said Joe Forkin, DRWC president. He said the tract was long industrial and is in an area between Penn Treaty Park and Port Richmond that’s without riverfront access.

“Being able to acquire six acres really sets up a nice area for public access and the community to come down,” he said, “in an authorized way.”

Graffiti Pier, a former coal loading dock facility owned by Conrail, in the Port Richmond section along the Delaware River.
FRANK WIESE / Staff
Graffiti Pier, a former coal loading dock facility owned by Conrail, in the Port Richmond section along the Delaware River.

Forkin said there’s no final construction cost or project budget because the process of determining what the space could become is just getting underway.

In September, the DRWC announced that following a request for proposals, it had selected Harlem-based Studio Zewde to lead the planning and design phase of the project. The studio, which specializes in landscape architecture, urban design, and public art, will conduct a feasibility study and analyze the physical integrity of the pier.

The firm will also develop a community-engagement plan that includes artists, neighbors, and other stakeholders to provide input on how best to preserve the existing structure and artwork. The DRWC has said the goal is to retain “the creative spirit and cultural value of Graffiti Pier.”