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Construction to start on riverfront greenway

Bob Borski heads down a long lane off State Road and stops his car at a city park on the Delaware River in Northeast Philadelphia.

Bob Borski heads down a long lane off State Road and stops his car at a city park on the Delaware River in Northeast Philadelphia.

The former congressman scans the broad shoulders of the muddy river.

"It's spectacular," Borski said.

"And no one ever gets over here to see it."

That is set to change dramatically in the next two years.

The long-discussed North Delaware riverfront greenway is moving closer to reality, with enough public support and public money - $34 million - to begin construction on two-thirds of the proposed 11-mile trail for runners, walkers and cyclists.

It will hug the water's edge - or come as close as possible - and link existing paths with new trails that will extend from Allegheny Avenue in Port Richmond to the historic Glen Foerd mansion in Torresdale.

"We've got momentum going here," said Borski, chairman of the nonprofit Delaware River City Corp., which is steering the greenway's development.

The North Delaware trail is part of a broader national effort to create a 3,000-mile greenway stretching from Maine to Florida.

In Philadelphia, it would link trails along the Delaware with paths on the Schuylkill. Currently, the Schuylkill River Trail extends 30 miles from Center City to Phoenixville, and as envisioned would continue to Reading.

Federal, state, and city money committed to the North Delaware project will be used for trail-building, roadwork, and construction of a bridge over Frankford Creek.

"This is an important time for us," said U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, a Democrat who represents Northeast Philadelphia and helped secure about half the federal funding.

Last year, the city extended a half-mile recreational trail at Pennypack on the Delaware, a 10-year-old extension of Pennypack Park.

Next up:

Extending Delaware Avenue by two miles through Bridesburg and adding an adjacent green buffer and path.

Converting two miles of the abandoned Kensington & Tacony (K&T) rail line into a trail.

Revitalizing 41/2 acres at the Lardner's Point Pumping Station near the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge and building a quarter-mile trail on the water's edge.

Constructing three miles of bikeway along State Road, past the police and fire academies and the city's Baxter water-treatment plant.

The creation of a seamless greenway still faces hurdles. For the K&T rail-to-trail revitalization, the city has to negotiate two easements with private property owners, Borski said. And there are gaps in planning for three miles of trail.

Even so, "the feeling out here is things are starting to move along," Borski said.

While work on a North Delaware trail is making headway, a similar plan for a seven-mile stretch of the Central Delaware - from Allegheny Avenue south to Oregon Avenue - is getting pushback from property owners and developers.

The different reactions to the two plans were evident at a City Council hearing in June on separate zoning bills allowing setbacks for trails.

A measure to create zoning for a trail on the North Delaware sailed through. But similar action for the Central Delaware section drew criticism from a group representing developers and property owners.

"The Central Delaware is completely different," said Councilwoman Joan L. Krajewski, whose district includes the North Delaware.

Much of the land along the North Delaware waterfront is vacant, owned by the city or in a flood plain. The trail setback, too, is less onerous: 50 feet on the North Delaware versus 100 feet for the Central Delaware.

More is at stake financially on the Central Delaware, where the proposed SugarHouse Casino and high-end residential developments have raised property values.

"Whenever you're talking about Center City, you're talking about a higher dollar value, which triggers a different kind of response," said Patrick Starr, vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, one of the early promoters of a waterfront greenway.

Krajewski said she had been working for years to enlist the support of North Delaware stakeholders, from civic groups to private businesses.

Bud Newman, president of Newman Paperboard Inc. in the Wissinoming section of Northeast Philadelphia, admits that when he first heard of the greenway, he had doubts.

His family-owned paper mill sits on 30 waterfront acres. Newman feared the trail was part of a hidden agenda on the city's part to run industry off the river.

Newman met several times with Borski and Krajewski, who allayed his fears. "They understand the principles of coexistence," Newman said.

As work on the North Delaware trail gets under way, Borski said, it could help to spur support for a Central Delaware trail.

"You're going to see trails," he said, "and have access to the Delaware River that no one in the Northeast has seen in a lifetime."