The "opportunistic species" - that's horticultural lingo for some serious weeds - soar 10 feet and taller on Pier 11, a historic structure that juts into the Delaware River just south of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

The pier's tale tracks the story of Philadelphia - a life launched from and thriving upon commerce that comes with a perch on a big river. Decades of decline and decay followed as that commerce stagnated and faded. And then along came gentrification.

Now, Philadelphia wants to tell a new story about opportunity on the riverfront: reclaiming it and returning it to residents for recreation. Pier 11, once the staging grounds for construction of the giant bridge next door and later the resting place - really rusting place - for a famous U.S. warship, seems like the place to start.

By this time next year, could Pier 11 be a beautiful city park?

Last week, Mayor Nutter embraced much of a Penn Praxis plan to reinvent the Delaware riverfront from Allegheny Avenue south to Oregon Avenue. He pledged to lead the way in turning "this crumbling pier into a green oasis" like the Hudson River parks in Manhattan.

Pier 11, which sits at the mid-point of the central Delaware River area described by Nutter, was built of timber in 1916 at the foot of Race Street. It is 540 feet long and 80 feet wide. An enormous shed, which was used for unloading cargo from ships and later housed police- and fire-marine units, was removed in 1992.

A 1922 New York Times story cites a massive celebration on Pier 11 for the start of bridge construction, which included a 17-gun salute from the Olympia, Admiral Dewey's flagship in the Spanish-American War. The cruiser remained rusting at the pier until its rescue in 1986 by a group that towed it a few blocks south for rehabilitation.

Now controlled by Penn's Landing Corp., a city-created nonprofit that Nutter has vowed to reorganize as a more open agency, Pier 11 stands behind tall, locked gates. Developers eyed it for residential or commercial projects in 1989 and 1999, but scuttled plans or went elsewhere.

The pier's pocked and cracked asphalt surface is dominated by bushy weeds and several trees that weave into a dense forest in the center. Curious explorers last week had to walk along the pier's sometimes crumbling edges to reach the far end.

PATCO trains rumble by on the bridge nearly overhead as tugboats, pleasure craft and larger commercial ships glide by.

Ride the Ducks, a sightseeing company using amphibious buses to haul tourists around the city and onto the river, built a boat ramp next to the pier in 2003. The weeds on Pier 11 take root in part on river "spoils" dumped there from excavation done to create the boat ramp.

The pier is remarkably clear of trash, with only a handful of empty beer bottles scattered around the end, apparently left by a boarding party of boaters.

The steel truss and concrete deck, added in 1931, are collapsing in some areas. On the pier's river edge, two massive mooring posts once used to tie up boats appear ready to drop into the river.

Still, Harris Steinberg seemed giddy on his first tour of the pier last week. The Penn Praxis director looked around and said: "Just being by the bridge, the scale of it, the Delaware Power Plant, the bend of the river . . ." before his voice trailed off in wonder.

Steinberg said there are still many "open questions" about the Pier 11 project - would it be run by Penn Praxis, the City Planning Commission, Penn's Landing Corp. or some combination of the three? He said he hopes the project will be well under way by next summer.

Another question to be answered: How to pay for it?

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources was founded in 1995 in part to administer grants to benefit rivers, greenways and local recreation.

DCNR secretary Michael DiBerardinis, a former city recreation commissioner, called the project "right up our alley."

"When you look at the project on its face, it meets the mission and priorities of our grants program," DiBerardinis said. "We're looking forward to receiving an application."

Nutter last week called on the nonprofits that helped fund the study by Penn Praxis, an arm of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, to help make the riverfront goals a reality.

Matt Bergheiser, Philadelphia program director for the Knight Foundation, said his agency has pledged to spend 60 days formulating how to achieve those goals.

"Absolutely we have a deep interest in developing the waterfront as a world-class asset for the city," Bergheiser said.

Brent Thompson of the William Penn Foundation said his board members want to see the Penn Praxis vision achieved.

"Obviously, we'd be very interested in talking to the city about making that happen," Thompson said. *