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Nutter seeks to turn the tide on Delaware River waterfront

THEY HAVE flowed throughout time, their murky water carrying the hand-carved canoes of the Lenape tribe and freighters filled with black crude.

A view from the Ben Franklin Bridge of Philadelphia's waterfront and new park at Race Street.  (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff photographer)
A view from the Ben Franklin Bridge of Philadelphia's waterfront and new park at Race Street. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff photographer)Read more

THEY HAVE flowed throughout time, their murky water carrying the hand-carved canoes of the Lenape tribe and freighters filled with black crude.

As businesses transformed into fence-lined industries, buffered by concrete highway moats, Philadelphia's rivers, particularly the Delaware, became a thing residents drove over, something eyed from a distance, like clouds.

"We've become disconnected, even frightened of the water, at least since the '60s or '70s," said Jane Lipton, executive director of the Manayunk Development Corp. "We love to look at it from paths and high-rise buildings and riverbanks, but we don't really come in contact with it anymore."

After Penn's Landing was created in 1968, millions of public dollars were poured into the area by the former Penn's Landing Corp. to bring developers there, with little success.

As he campaigns for a second term, Mayor Nutter will finally get to show off his first major waterfront-development project when the $6 million Race Street Pier on the former Pier 11 is unveiled Thursday.

Even with that bright spot, though, there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome to reconnect Philadelphians with the Delaware River.

The Race Street Pier accomplishes something that the Great Plaza to the south doesn't: it gets people out on the river, up close and personal with the water and the great blue expanse of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

"You feel like you're on the water, like you're almost on a ship," said Sarah Thorp, master planning manager for the Delaware River Waterfront Corp.

Pier 11 was built in 1916 and was a staging ground for the construction of the bridge. It was used for storage and police and fire activities until 1992.

The new Race Street Pier will be multilayered, with an upper boardwalk, trees, benches and a lower lawn all crammed into 1 acre and easily accessible by foot from Old City and surrounding neighborhoods.

Next up, the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. is expected to release a master plan based on recommendations made in a PennPraxis study years ago that called for small, interconnected parks and piers that would attract people, then developers.

Last year, the city unveiled a waterfront bike trail and a small park, Washington Avenue Green. The city hopes that the trail will eventually hug the water from Oregon to Allegheny avenues, with green space and public piers every half-mile.

But that may be easier said than done. Thorp said that nearly 90 percent of the waterfront in that area is in the hands of private owners, and there's ongoing negotiations for access. Nightclubs, parking garages, high-rise condos and the SugarHouse Casino separate Race Street from the rolling lawns of Penn Treaty Park in Fishtown.

Between Penn Treaty and the small sliver of green space at Pulaski Park, near Richmond Street and Allegheny Avenue, there are chemical plants, hulking factories with broken windows and sprawling lots covered in glass and rusted fencing. Despite the graffiti, trash and broken railings, Pulaski Park was still crowded with fishermen enticing catfish with chicken livers one recent afternoon.

Race Street Pier, with its free Wi-Fi, will likely have more iPads than fishing rods, but at least it dips our toes into the dark, turbulent Delaware. The river, older relatives once said, is polluted, filled with skin-burning chemicals and floating condoms that fishermen now nickname whitefish. Ask an expert or one of those fishermen about water quality, though, and you'll likely hear similar answers.

"It's probably 30 or 40 percent cleaner, the water, than it was 30 or 40 years ago," said Mike DiVirgilio, 74, of Port Richmond.

News of drownings, pier collapses, oil spills and the occasional body part bobbing around have hitched "dangerous" with river in many people's minds. Then, last summer, river recreation collided with industry in the worst way when a barge barreled over a disabled duck boat filled with people, killing two Hungarian tourists.Despite the tragedy, the duck boats remain a quick and affordable way for the masses to get on the Delaware. River advocates think that there are opportunities for entrepreneurs to add to the mix of duck boats, dinner cruises, kayaks, tall ships and sailing operations already available.

"The biggest barrier, people tell us, is that they didn't know they could do any of this," said Jessica Anderson, of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

The RiverLink Ferry runs from Camden to Philadelphia during the summer, but other water taxis, shuttles and public transportation on the river never took off. Fast-moving currents, tides and heavy industrial traffic tend to keep canoes and inexperienced kayakers away, while high insurance premiums discourage boat or Jet Ski rentals.

The Liberty Sailing Club and Liberty Sailing School, both near Dave & Buster's along the waterfront, teaches newcomers to sail on the challenging waterway and gives sailors access to the river without owning a boat.

"There is no better way to see the city," said Art Silver, of the Liberty Sailing Club. "You have a lot of fun, and you get some time to get your mind off the problems, and God knows we all have problems."

Although swimming in the river is asking a lot, and the prices of dinner cruises and sailing excursions can swamp a family, there are opportunities out there, for visitors and entrepreneurs, officials say.

That's why some believe Race Street Pier could be special, the kind of place you take your parents when they visit town, or propose on bended knee to your girlfriend.

"It's going to be one of the great gathering places in the city," Nutter said last week.