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Inga Saffron
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Filling a forgotten Delaware River pier building with art and beer

A new studio space for artists promises to create a year-round destination on the Delaware.

The Delaware River Waterfront corp. plans to turn Pier 9 into a maker's space with a public park and restaurant. Groundswell Design, which created Spruce Street Harbor Park, has designed the space using shipping containers. It will peel back the roof of the pier building at the water's edge to create the park
The Delaware River Waterfront corp. plans to turn Pier 9 into a maker's space with a public park and restaurant. Groundswell Design, which created Spruce Street Harbor Park, has designed the space using shipping containers. It will peel back the roof of the pier building at the water's edge to create the parkRead moreDRWC

The news from the Delaware waterfront this season has been all about the coming mega-projects: the 12-acre park that will finally reconnect Center City back to the river, the forest of towers at the foot of Washington Avenue, the ritzy townhouse development overlooking Penn Treaty Park. But like so many transformational schemes that have been floated for the Delaware over the last half-century, we'll believe it when we see it.

So far, the waterfront's most satisfying projects have tended to be of the more modest sort, like the Fringe Arts Building and Race Street Pier. Even as it begins its fourth summer, the pop-up beer garden at Spruce Street Harbor Park is still packing them in, despite having no permanent structures.

Now, the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. is thinking small once again, but this time with an eye on the long term. The agency plans to install a year-round, arts-themed, Harbor Park spin-off at Pier 9, an early-20th-century maritime warehouse that has been vacant since the early 1960s. Part makers space, part art gallery, part beer garden, the project would finally open Pier 9's soaring interior to the public. If properly programmed and managed, it is even possible to imagine Pier 9 becoming the visual arts adjunct to the Fringe's performance venue.

Unlike the more ambitious proposals we've seen for the waterfront, Pier 9's conversion is likely to happen fast; the schedule calls for artists to move in next spring. The waterfront agency has raised all but a small portion of the $4 million needed to make the structure habitable, said vice president Joseph A. Forkin, and next week it will begin seeking approvals from the city's Historic and Art Commissions.

Considering the huge success of Harbor Park and Summerfest, it's no surprise that the DRWC has tapped the city's pop-up guru, David Fierabend and his Groundswell Design Group, to fit out the interior with its signature palette of shipping containers and reclaimed wood. At the same time, DRWC has also signed on architect Brian Phillips of ISA to ensure the building, which is being renamed "Cherry Street Pier," feels like a destination that will stick around awhile.

The most exciting intervention calls for peeling back about a quarter of the 550-foot-long metal truss roof at the river end of the building. Opening the space to the sky will create a seductive walled garden at the very edge of the city, with the atmosphere of an ancient ruin. The triple-arched end wall, which resembles a triumphal Roman arch, will become a sculptural frame for admiring the magnificent river views.

No doubt, the plan to remove a portion of the roof may make some preservationists uncomfortable. But because the steel trusses will be left in place, the missing roof slats can always be put back. Although the pier is not listed on the city's historic register, the project is subject to review because it is in the Old City Historic District.

The DRWC also plans to station a food truck in the garden to provide food and drinks, and to open a more formal, sit-down restaurant near the entrance to Cherry Street Pier. But adding more beer and entertainment to the waterfront is not the project's main goal, Forkin stressed. There's plenty of that now, with the Fillmore compound, SugarHouse casino, and Morgan's Pier.

Rather, Cherry Street Pier is meant to emulate arts hybrids like the Crane Arts Building and Bok, which mash together studios for working artists with amenities that attract visitors. DRWC's main focus, Forkin said, will be to establish an arts outpost on the river and "support Philadelphia's creative community."

How that part of the plan will work is now taking shape. The cavernous pier building will be brought up to code with new electrical and plumbing systems, but without erasing its rough industrial feel. The old cobblestones that run down the center, following the path of Cherry Street, will be left in place. Glass, garage-style doors will be installed on the north side, to allow river breezes and views of the Ben Franklin Bridge and Race Street Pier.

On the south side of the cobblestone "street," Fierabend envisions a row of double-height shipping containers capable of housing roughly 50 artists in 14 studios. There will also be common spaces for tenants that offer amenities like printers and refrigerators. Perhaps most compelling for artists, who have been rapidly losing high-ceilinged studio space to gentrification, is that Cherry Street Pier's studios will be rented at below-market rates with flexible leases, Forkin said. The DRWC hopes the design will forge an arts community, and that the members will curate shows in the large central space that has been set aside for exhibitions.

The catch is that the artists and makers will be part of the show. The shipping containers have been designed with sliding doors that open to the central walkway, enabling visitors to peer into the studios. That's appealing if you're a maker with stuff to sell. Maybe less so if you're trying to get work done. What is good about the shipping-container design is that it enables the venue to evolve along with the waterfront.

Development of the central Delaware corridor has picked up momentum since the city announced it had secured all but $10 million of the $225 million needed to build the 12-acre cap over I-95. Although people won't be able to stroll through the park's gardens until after construction is completed in 2022, one of the little-noted side projects — a continuous recreation trail from Washington Avenue to Spring Garden Street — will go out to bid next year.

More than any of the overscaled high-rise projects that have been proposed recently, incremental improvements like the trail and the Cherry Street Pier will help bridge the gulf between the isolated tracts along the Delaware and the rest of the city. Better sidewalks, traffic calming, and improved transit are still urgently needed on Columbus Boulevard, but for now, these modest projects are the catalyst that will help the riverfront evolve into a walkable urban neighborhood.