The opening of I-95 in Philadelphia 40 years ago cut the city’s waterfront neighborhoods off from their source. For more than a decade, the city has been planning a fix: a new park at Penn’s Landing that would cap a stretch of the highway and again connect Old City with the Delaware River.

How’s it going?

That essentially was the question posted to Curious Philly, a forum where readers can tell our journalists what they’re wondering about. A reader asked: “What’s going on with the Penn’s Landing overcap park? Is it progressing? Is it on schedule?”

Well, a key step in Philadelphia’s long-planned transformation of its Delaware River waterfront — from a narrow promenade separated from the neighborhoods to a park connected to the rest of the city — is on track to begin construction in a little over two years.

Lizzie Woods, the Delaware River Waterfront Corp.’s (DRWC) vice president of planning and capital programs, said the overcap park is expected to begin construction in late 2021 and is still in preliminary engineering and design phases.

But there will be some discussion of the park this summer. The DRWC is “working on a public engagement plan [for the park] as we speak,” she said, adding that the group is “eager to get further feedback from the public as we roll stuff out.” That means public meetings, online forums, and smaller focus groups.

Why has it been taking so long? Almaz Crowe, a spokesperson for the DRWC, said by email that the design and engineering processes, which are in the hands of PennDot, could not start until funding was fully secured.

Another reason for the delay is the puzzles PennDot faces in designing the park, including ensuring that it doesn’t block views of the river. Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, said by email that PennDot has been trying “to design a structure that has the flexibility to support a variety of programming needs on top, while also trying to achieve the best sight lines from Front Street to the waterfront.”

The vision for the park, according to DRWC plans, includes spray pools, a skating rink, and a cafe. The park is to slope down to the riverfront, expanding the Penn’s Landing promenade and connecting it to Old City. In renderings, the park’s attractions are surrounded by grassy knolls lined with trees and crisscrossed by pedestrian walkways.

Plans for the park began to come into focus in late 2010, when the DRWC began showcasing drafts of a “Master Plan for the Central Delaware,” which would redevelop Philly’s waterfront with new parks, housing developments, and retail.

As of now, the pedestrian-only Walnut Street bridge is the only route that can be followed all the way to the waterfront. The others can be accessed only by climbing down stairs in the case of the U-shaped bridge looping between Market and Chestnut, or, in the case of the Dock Street Bridge, by crossing Christopher Columbus Boulevard.

A view of the Walnut Street bridge over I-95 and Columbus Boulevard, from the Hilton Penn's Landing Hotel parking garage.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
A view of the Walnut Street bridge over I-95 and Columbus Boulevard, from the Hilton Penn's Landing Hotel parking garage.

A plaza already caps a smaller stretch of the highway between Chestnut and Sansom Walk, which is raised above and fenced off from Columbus Boulevard. In the master plan, this plaza would stretch all the way to Walnut and would run toward the riverfront without blocking I-95.

The park would take up 4 acres and cap about one-tenth of a mile of highway. It will be connected to a park sloping to the river between Chestnut and Walnut Streets, which will take up 8 acres but not go over the highway.

The city adopted the master plan in 2012 and the next year, the DRWC unveiled plans with Hargreaves Associates, which presented the idea of a highway cap as a space of “outdoor rooms.” In 2014, the DRWC, Hargreaves, and other engineering and design consultants completed a feasibility study to see if such an engineering feat would even be possible.

Could a 4-acre park be built over a highway? The study, which won an excellence award from the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2015, concluded that it could be because of new innovations in engineering and architecture.

One of the study’s most critical findings, according to the DRWC’s website, was that it would be more sensible to build a new cap over I-95 rather than expand the current plaza, which would complicate repair and renovation.

The plaza currently holds Philadelphia’s memorials to Irish and Scottish immigrants. The DRWC says it is “working closely with [Philadelphia] Parks and Recreation and the Irish and Scottish memorial organizations ... to ensure that the memorials are respected,” while the Irish Memorial’s website says that the monument will be temporarily relocated during construction and then returned to the cap once the park is completed.

The park’s construction has an estimated cost of $225 million, most of that from the city and state. Funding came together in June 2017, when the William Penn Foundation announced that it would raise the last $10 million.

A crowd gathers at the Irish Memorial on Delaware Avenue near Chestnut Street for the St. Patrick's Day Celebration in Philadelphia, PA, Sunday, March 17, 2019.
MARGO REED / Staff Photographer
A crowd gathers at the Irish Memorial on Delaware Avenue near Chestnut Street for the St. Patrick's Day Celebration in Philadelphia, PA, Sunday, March 17, 2019.

Penn’s Landing itself is mainly a promenade with views of the river and Camden. While the DRWC is using some of its space for a summer carnival with a Ferris wheel, roller rink, and other amusements, the area is dominated by a parking lot, and the promenade has some of its bricks in disrepair.

Job Itzkowitz, executive director of the Old City District Board, said that the neighborhood is very excited about the parks. “For too many years,” he said, Old City has “been separated from the river by infrastructure meant for vehicles.” He also emphasized that the neighborhood will be getting a “large urban park space,” something Old City has been lacking.

The new park will be “a great opportunity for businesses along Chestnut Street to get foot traffic,” he added.