Consider it Philadelphia's very own Stonehenge, a towering structure of mysterious origin on the Delaware waterfront that faces the morning sun, and that every summer weekend receives hordes of pilgrims who gather around its base.
True, they're usually there for a music festival, not to worship at the four-story, concrete megalith draped with a "Welcome to Penn's Landing" banner. The plinth has loomed over the riverfront for so long an entire generation probably has no idea what purpose it was meant to serve. Perhaps they assume it is simply part of the deteriorating Great Plaza amphitheater.
In its way, this odd architectural relic has become a fixture on the Philadelphia skyline, forever framing our views of Camden. The twin piers were erected in 2002 for an elevated tram that was supposed to connect a massive entertainment complex at Penn's Landing with a similarly ambitious attraction on the Camden waterfront. The slogan for the project was "two cities, one exciting waterfront."
The grandiose scheme was the brainchild of former Mayor Rendell. He managed to sign up the Simon Property Group, a major shopping-mall operator, which promised to build an enormous parking garage topped by an "entertainment mall" that would feature a historic carousel, the Please Touch Museum, and a Cheesecake Factory. The tram was supposed to land on the roof and move 3,000 people an hour between the two sides of the river.
But even before the first load of concrete was poured, Simon began questioning the viability of such an immense project in the middle of Philadelphia's desolate waterfront. Undaunted, the Delaware River Port Authority decided to proceed with the construction of the tram's support structure. Although there has never been a full accounting, it's believed $16 million was spent on the tram before Simon finally canceled the mall. New Jersey ended up with its own, less-statuesque, concrete megalith.
The city's in no hurry to demolish the solidly built structures, said Joseph A. Forkin, head of operations for the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. So expect the mysterious piers to stand a while longer, an apt monument to our waterfront dreams and municipal overreaching.