A one-acre pier-park opening on the Delaware last week might not sound like a big deal, but it packs a wallop for changing our Central Delaware Riverfront from an overlooked backwater into the front door to our city and region.
The pier, formerly a commercial shipping berth that recently served as a parking lot, is an early project in our effort to develop the Central Delaware into a welcoming urban place with continuous connections to the city's renowned, dense, walkable downtown.
As chairman of the planning committee of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., the nonprofit managing the transformation of the riverfront, I'm proud that we're developing a master plan that will honor the forward-looking principles of the "Civic Vision for the Central Delaware," which resulted from a Penn-Praxis-run, citizen-driven process.
At the same time, we're making incremental progress on providing public access to the river, with the creation of a no-frills, interim trail along the water's edge from Lombard to Tasker streets, and a pop-up park at Pier 53 south called the Washington Avenue Green. This start is essential to create momentum so the waterfront can realize its potential as a great recreational and cultural amenity - and also as a fully integrated extension of the city's oldest and densest neighborhoods.
The Race Street pier, designed by James Corner Field Operations (disclosure: Corner is chairman of the landscape-architecture department at PennDesign, where I serve as dean) innovates on previous pier designs, producing a dynamic and diverse experience in a small package.
It is at once a dramatic and intimate space, framed by two pier headhouses and the graceful leap of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge overhead, and a surprisingly expansive view at its riverfront end, some 500 feet from Columbus Boulevard. It answers the question of whether a well-conceived public space can change perceptions of a place with a resounding "Yes!" - the pier shows the river as its dynamic best, with a sweeping curve and visual links to one of our nation's great skylines.
As a nonprofit with a mandate for developing six miles of a river lined with piers, many of which are now unsuitable for their original commercial purposes due to deterioration and changes in shipping technology, the Race Street pier provides a model for how other piers might be rehabilitated as public recreation spaces.
Many degraded piers will continue to decompose and provide valuable habitat and wetlands that filter pollutants and improve the health of the river, and still other piers will provide valuable development opportunities to create a unique experience of living on the river's edge.
Indeed, the pier provides a catalyst for spurring high-quality development on nearby parcels. We know from cities across the country that high-quality public spaces spur private development, and the pier's thoughtful design should raise the bar for developers along the riverfront to create a new neighborhood that follows best practices for pedestrian-friendly, green, sustainable, urban architecture.
The build-out of the Delaware riverfront as a place with parks and trails interwoven around retail and residential development will occur over many years, but amenities like the Race Street pier, with their civic purpose, provide a reminder of why we love cities: They are places always changing and surprising, with new places and views unimaginable only years before.
FOR DECADES, the Delaware riverfront has been Philadelphia's underdog: underutilized and a symbol of blight but with so much potential. With the opening of the pier and the forthcoming master plan, the underdog is back in contention, and giving us plenty to root for.
This is indeed the start of something big.