After years of failed “megaproject” redevelopment proposals back in the 1990s and early 2000s for Penn’s Landing, the William Penn Foundation board of directors, concerned that the city would squander its greatest redevelopment asset, funded a citizen-led civic visioning process for the central Delaware River in 2007. Instead of delegating the redevelopment direction of the city’s entire central waterfront to a single developer, the aim was to empower the communities most impacted by riverfront development to voice their opinions, hopes, and desires toward a new vision for the future of the central Delaware.
Through a year-long process led by Harris Steinberg, the leader of Penn Praxis at the University of Pennsylvania at the time, thousands of Philadelphians came together to create the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware, which was startling in its clarity and wisdom. Instead of more, big-box, suburban-style, auto-oriented, and auto-dependent development, the communities arrayed along the central Delaware voted for extending the city’s walkable, pedestrian-scaled grid to the river’s edge, and to use generous green spaces and public access as an overarching framework for riverfront redevelopment.
That vision was later embodied in the Central Delaware Master Plan, currently being implemented by the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC). As the lead funder of both the Civic Vision process and the master plan that followed, we are pleased to see that the citizen-based plan for the central Delaware has been able to attract significant high-quality public investment. More recently, that has included private developer interest as well, including proposals ranging from new residential development to a new arena for the Sixers. In considering these development proposals, the test should be clear: Do they advance or derail the master plan? Do they honor the community vision?
The Civic Vision was a groundbreaking process not only for the central Delaware, but citywide, ushering in a new era of raised expectations, and expanded resident and community participation in planning and development decision making. The Civic Vision has been a big bet for us, too. Since 2007, the foundation has committed $30 million to support the initial citizen-led planning process, and toward the creation of new public spaces, like Race Street Pier, Washington Avenue Green, Pier 68 Recreation Pier, and the Central Section of the new Delaware Riverfront Trail, the city’s first truly multiuse trail, which broke ground last month.
The centerpiece of the central Delaware public space plan is, of course, the redevelopment of Penn’s Landing, which will involve a stunning new park stretching across I-95 and Columbus Boulevard to reconnect the city’s Historic District with the riverfront. The foundation has committed $15 million toward the creation of the park, which will be a new citywide public amenity. However, for the new Penn’s Landing Park to succeed as a public space, it is essential that the land adjoining it be developed sympathetically to ensure it becomes an active year-round people place every day of the week.
The William Penn Foundation has had a long commitment to supporting high-quality public spaces along both of the city’s riverfronts that are accessible, attractive, and welcoming for all Philadelphians. In addition to providing new recreation opportunities, we also feel that public riverfront access is essential to building public support for policies and regulations that safeguard the region’s water quality
The long years of planning and initial project development along the central Delaware are about to pay off for Philadelphia. The new Central Delaware Trail will be completed in less than 18 months from now, and early next year the construction process for the new Penn’s Landing Park will begin. All that remains to finally achieve the people-centered Civic Vision articulated over a decade ago is to stick to the master plan and honor the vision and wisdom of the community.