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Inga Saffron
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Delaware River redevelopment starts with highway ramp demolition

Removing a small piece of highway from the Delaware River waterfront could help reconnect Center City to the river.

Rendering of a proposed waterfront park for the Delaware Waterfront.
Rendering of a proposed waterfront park for the Delaware Waterfront.Read moreHandout

The first major work in the long-awaited project to reconnect Center City with the Delaware River will begin Wednesday when Philadelphia's waterfront manager starts taking down the concrete highway ramps between Market and Chestnut Streets.

Built in the 1970s, when Philadelphia envisioned a clutch of high-rise towers springing up on Penn's Landing, the crisscrossing "scissor" ramps are now considered a redundant piece of highway infrastructure that impedes views of the river. Their demolition is intended to prepare the waterfront for the construction of a cap over I-95, said Joseph A. Forkin, president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. He expects the work to take about four months.

Just last month, the agency announced it had secured virtually all of the $225 million needed to build the 11-acre cap, which will span both the highway and Columbus Boulevard, between Chestnut and Walnut Streets. The cap will be covered with a landscaped park. It is intended to provide a seamless, walkable link from Front Street in Old City down to the river's edge, as well as a new amphitheater to replace the Great Plaza.

The scissor ramps are just north of where the cap will eventually be built. Although work on the cover park is not expected to start before 2021, Forkin said his agency decided to remove the ramps now because they receive so little use — about 1,200 car trips a day. The 2.6-acre area occupied by the ramps is designated for mixed-use housing in the Central Delaware master plan, and the waterfront agency hopes to start marketing the site to developers once demolition is complete.

Removing the scissor ramps will not affect vehicle or pedestrian access to Penn's Landing, Forkin said. The highway-style structure is attached to a U-shaped viaduct that links Chestnut and Market Streets to the upper level of Penn's Landing. That loop, which serves cars and pedestrians, will continue to be used as a bus terminus and turnaround. According to Forkin, the scissor ramps were added in the mid-1970s to handle large crowds expected for the Bicentennial and to prepare for a waterfront building boom. Neither the crowds nor the building boom ever materialized.

The scissor ramps are not considered redundant by everyone, however. While relatively few Penn's Landing visitors use them, residents of the condos at Piers 3 and 5 say the crisscrossing ramps are the main route in and out of the complex. They strongly objected to the demolition and even threatened litigation. "It decreases access at a time when they are increasing activity on the waterfront," said Nora Barry, a resident.

Because of the canyon wall created by I-95, the Center City streets flowing into Columbus Boulevard are widely spaced. Once the ramps are removed, Barry said, residents may have to change their driving patterns, continuing south to Spruce or north to Race to reach their homes. Some fear the removal of the ramps could pose a safety issue if ambulances or fire trucks run into traffic on Columbus Boulevard. Albert Avallone, a resident, questioned why the waterfront corporation decided to remove the ramps when the cap construction won't begin until 2021. "Why are you taking away access and egress when no development is taking place?" he asked.

It may seem odd that the first step in reconnecting the city to its historic waterfront involves the removal of highway access. But ever since the city began to reexamine its approach to the Delaware waterfront, removing the scissor ramps has been a major goal. "It's amazing it's finally happening," said Harris Steinberg, who led the initial Penn Praxis study of the waterfront in the mid-2000s, which laid the groundwork for the master plan. "I'm still an advocate for tackling I-95 in a bigger way, but this is an important step."

Once the ramps are down, Forkin said, the site will be planted with grass and turned into a park. Over the winter, he said, the waterfront corporation will consult with neighbors about interim designs for the park.