When the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. selected Field Operations last fall to design a new park at the Race Street pier, it was hard to shake off a certain feeling of trepidation.

The firm, led by Philadelphia-based James Corner, was still basking in rave reviews for its work on the High Line park, the magical suspended garden that rolls through New York's Chelsea neighborhood on an elevated trestle. But for that five-acre project, Corner's group enjoyed a kingly budget of $152 million. Perennially cash-strapped Philadelphia was setting aside just $5 million for its one-acre pier, and part of that money was meant to cover repairs to the structure's 109-year-old wooden piles.

How could the results ever measure up? Was Philadelphia fated - not for the first time - to get second-rate work from a first-rate designer?

Waterfront officials now have released images of the park design, and the results should put to rest any doubts about Field Operations' ability to work on the cheap. Their sure-handed design promises to do for Philadelphia's neglected waterfront what the High Line park did for its railroad relic: make it a destination for high-end hanging out.

Race Street pier won't have the High Line's seductive chocolate-colored, Ipe-wood furnishings or custom-made pavers. The design's strength is its strong, clear composition, which should wrest maximum drama from that narrow, confined space. Field Operations' strategy is a nice reminder that good design isn't so much about the size of your budget as the breadth of your imagination.

Field Operations' designers, Corner and associate Lisa Tziona Switkin, have nicknamed the scheme "The Slice." The shorthand refers to their big move, a ramp that will diagonally bisect the long pier while cresting slowly upward.

By the time you reach the end, you'll be hovering about 15 feet above the churning Delaware River, high enough to scan its vastness like a lookout in a ship's crow's nest. At that point, the Ben Franklin Bridge's massive stone abutment should feel close enough to touch. The compass needle of Camden's City Hall will guide your eye into South Jersey.

While one diagonal sends you up a tree-lined walking path to the edge of a watery abyss, another will take you down to a cozier realm. Sheltered by the rising ramp on one side and the Pier 9 shed on the other, the park's south-facing lower level features a grassy lawn, a small amphitheater, and a cantilevered observation deck just inches above the water.

Separating the park into upper and lower levels - one hard, the other soft - was a clever way of organizing a cramped space; it keeps the pier from feeling like a bowling alley.

But the design also harks back to a time when commerce and pleasure occurred side by side on the Delaware. Although the city built the Race Street pier in 1901 for unloading cargo ships, it included an upper deck for a dance pavilion. For a time, the structure served as a children's hospital, in the belief that river air was curative.

Now, when visitors move toward the water, Corner wants them to pass through three distinct "zones," starting with a tough urban carpet as people cross the Columbus Boulevard sidewalk and step onto the pier. You'll know you've left that hectic world behind when you encounter a wildflower meadow.

Soon after that, you'll come to a slip where boats used to moor. The design calls for a narrow bridge over the opening to emphasize the transition from land to sea. The idea is to create an intimate connection to the river.

There aren't many spots along the Delaware where that relationship can occur, and the city is hoping that this little park will be the spark that ignites development of the long-neglected Delaware waterfront.

The city has already failed once, at Penn's Landing. Three decades after it installed paths and seating there, Penn's Landing is still unable to attract crowds unless a major event is scheduled. It feels cut off from Center City.

The Race Street pier has the advantage of being more intuitively accessible. Even though you must pass through a dim stretch below I-95, the connection from Old City to the river remains unbroken.

Not that the route couldn't be improved. Waterfront officials have asked the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to add plantings, but so much more could be done east of Second Street. For starters, the city should compel the Delaware River Port Authority to return Race Street's north sidewalk to the public domain and take down the chain-link fence it erected after 9/11.

Field Operations, meanwhile, is working on lighting the underpass. One of the marks of a good designer is that it can't help suggesting add-ons to a project. Although no money has been budgeted, Corner has been pressing the city to include a kayak launch at the pier, a separate viewing deck in the space between the park and neighboring Pier 9, and a floating wetland to attract birds. He imagines a restaurant inside the redbrick Victorian pumping station on the corner of Race Street.

Speaking of Pier 9, Corner thinks the city should convert the light-filled warehouse into an events space. At the very least, he'd use vines or art to screen its unsightly north wall. Yes, he acknowledges, these things cost money. But he argues they also present naming opportunities for donors. None of the great urban parks cities built over the last decade - the High Line, Chicago's Millennium Park, Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park - would have opened without private gifts.

Even if the Race Street pier turns out as nicely as Field Operations' design suggests, looks alone won't be a measure of its success.

The park, which should be finished in spring 2011, needs meaningful connections to the frayed urban remains on Columbus Boulevard, such as the pumping station. Those old buildings are like the dock bollards where ships tied up, and the park is the ship the city has been waiting for. Now it's time to throw out a line and tie them up together.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.