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Changing Skyline: Delightful pier park brings hope to waterfront

When a new city park opens Thursday on the Delaware waterfront, on a narrow finger pier at the foot of Race Street, Philadelphia will have finally beaten the curse of Penn's Landing.

Editors Note: Errors were corrected in this column.

When a new city park opens Thursday on the Delaware waterfront, on a narrow finger pier at the foot of Race Street, Philadelphia will have finally beaten the curse of Penn's Landing.

That desert of unrealized dreams, of course, still takes up 13 acres of valuable real estate, a modern ruin of crumbling walkways, parking lots, and the forgotten monolith of a never-finished tram. But now that the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. has successfully completed a cozy new park a few blocks north, the 40-plus years of failure at Penn's Landing don't sting as much. The city has moved on.

It helps that Race Street Pier is everything that Penn's Landing is not. The park is easily accessible from Center City and the adjacent neighborhoods by foot, bike, and car (although the transit options aren't so good). When visitors arrive, they can enter the park from a real urban sidewalk on a real urban street. As they proceed along the 540-foot pier, the powerful design ensures that they are thoroughly immersed in the experience of being on the river.

The new $6.5 million park promises to do for the Delaware what the Schuylkill Banks trail did for the city's little river, becoming an after-work mecca for picnics, fishing, and lounging. People do go to Penn's Landing, but primarily for scheduled events. If Race Street Pier makes the Delaware a place to hang out, it will become harder for the city to continue ceding precious frontage to undesirable uses like big-box stores, casinos, and parking garages.

Race Street Pier is all of one acre, but the design by Field Operations - the same firm that gave Manhattan its wildly popular High Line Park - feels far more spacious than its diminutive size would suggest. The designers manage to squeeze in a boardwalk, a lawn, a small amphitheater, a bosque of trees, meandering paths, and plenty of benches by manipulating the surface topography.

The word topography comes up a lot in conversations with James Corner, Field Operations' founder and head of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Like a natural landscape, the pier contains multiple ecosystems. It moves from lowland to upland, from the open, unshaded boardwalk savanna through stands of swamp oaks and sweet gums, and down to a soft mound of an oval lawn, whose slope was sculpted to support the backs of hardworking sun worshipers.

Corner and associate Lisa Tziona Switkin divided the long, narrow pier on a diagonal, dubbing the design "The Slice." A row of 25-foot-tall swamp oaks, which were acquired as surplus from the ground zero memorial project in New York, marks that diagonal line, which also serves to exaggerate the perspective and draw the eye toward the water.

The journey through the varied terrains takes you face-to-face with the majestic stone abutment of the Ben Franklin Bridge. Because the elevation increases by 15 feet by the end of the boardwalk, you feel as if you are standing on the prow of a ship, with the broad curve of the Delaware unfurling in both directions. Turn around and Center City's skyline shimmers like Oz.

The complex topography is not merely an exercise in aesthetics. The changing terrain creates intimate nooks, such as the amphitheater steps at the far end of the pier, where visitors can kick back with a book, a beach blanket, or a laptop. Equipped with Wi-Fi, this is a 21st-century park where people can come to be alone and together at the same time.

In a sense, the pier owes its existence to the failure of the large-scale development model used at Penn's Landing since its creation in 1968. When the developer of a proposed entertainment mall pulled out in 2002 - the sixth subsidized project to fizzle there - it set off a public conversation about the future of the Delaware waterfront.

A new set of values emerged and were articulated in a report by Penn Praxis, a nonprofit consultant. Rather than throw more money at developers, infrastructure improvements, like parks or transit, are the true building blocks of cities, not mega-developments, the group argued.

Penn Praxis recommended a necklace of 10 parks along the river, arguing that these refuges would civilize the scrubby, former industrial landscape and, ultimately, make the entire shoreline - not just Penn's Landing - attractive to developers. In the meantime, the parks would provide existing residents with amenities they could really use. The Race Street Pier is the second of those parks. A formal master plan, scheduled for release June 13, should further refine the new vision for the Delaware.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corp., which oversaw the pier project with City Planner Alan Greenberger, also broke new ground by consulting with people who might actually use the park - unlike with Penn's Landing, where designs were always announced from on high. Field Operations was selected after a design competition, overseen by Marilyn Jordan Taylor, dean of Penn's design school and a board member of the waterfront commission. The results demonstrate that you can have public input without compromising the artistic vision.

In the past, the city would have rolled out some sod on the pier and called it a park. This time officials understood that design can help seduce people to use it. Just to be sure, the waterfront agency hired Field Operations to design sidewalk improvements for the unsightly stretch of Race Street under Interstate 95, between Old City and Columbus Boulevard. When it's finished in July, artist Dick Torchia's colored screen will light up the overpass.

Now, on to the next park.