By Harris Steinberg
Executive Director, Penn Praxis
Purposefully situated by William Penn and his surveyor Thomas Holme between two great rivers in 1682, Philadelphia rose to international prominence on the waters that flowed past her shores. For over 250 years, the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers were the economic, transportation, industrial, social and cultural lifelines of the city. Indeed, as a major point of entry in colonial times, Philadelphia’s Delaware River docks and wharves connected the city to the ports of the burgeoning British Empire through which streamed goods and services along with the diversity of peoples and ideas that would propel Philadelphia to national distinction.
After the Civil War, Philadelphia’s rivers fueled her rise as a great industrial power (recall that as early as the 1820s Manayunk was known as the Manchester of America) as anthracite coal from Scranton delivered via the Schuylkill fired the industries that would serve the rest of the country.
Simultaneously, Philadelphia pioneered the practice of public waterfront design and planning. Fredrik Graff’s seminal Fairmount Water Works at the Schuylkill Dam, designed in 1812 to protect the citizens of Philadelphia from a series of yellow fever epidemics, was the first municipal waterworks in the United States. Graff’s design, studied worldwide in its time, is a stunning fusion of then-state-of-the-art engineering and Greek Revival design. It remains today one of Philadelphia’s signature sites as citizens flock to the Water Works, as they did in Graff’s day, to seek refuge from the crowded metropolis, to be cooled by river breezes and to take pleasure in the elegant and urbane riverside setting. Graff’s masterwork set the stage for the creation of Fairmount Park, founded in 1855 and expanded in 1856 to protect the city’s water supply from industrial pollution; serving as a beloved and prescient symbol of civic design excellence.
The image of the shores of the upper Schuylkill River as it wends scenically through Fairmount Park stands in marked contrast to the fate of the remainder of Philadelphia’s 38-miles of shoreline. The Schuylkill’s banks below the dam and the entirety of the Delaware saw heavy industrial, shipping, defense and transportation uses develop as the city’s population swelled to accommodate the country’s rising demand for the goods and products she produced. As the “Workplace to the World”, Philadelphia’s rivers played a signal role in her ascendancy as one of America’s great industrial centers. For 80 years from the end of the Civil War through the end of World War II, Philadelphia and the industries and neighborhoods that lined the riverbanks provided the country with everything from ships to hats and locomotives to refined petroleum.
With the eventual decline in Philadelphia’s industrial fortunes after World War II and the ascendancy of the trucking industry in efficiently moving goods throughout the region and the country, Philadelphia’s waterfronts and shipyards languished. Her once thriving industries moved to places with access to cheap labor and new highways, leaving her shorelines girdled by toxic brownfields, the remains of defunct rail lines, the Schuylkill Expressway and Interstate 95. The river banks that William Penn had once envisioned as free, open and public had become the dying fringes of a once vital city.
The fate of the banks of the Delaware River has been studied for nearly 60 years. In 1947, Philadelphia planner Edmund Bacon, along with architect Oskar Stonorov, conceived the then-revolutionary idea for the public reclamation of the central Delaware riverfront at the foot of Market Street – an idea that would eventually come to be called Penn’s Landing. Stretching from Market Street south to Lombard, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s 1963 vision for Penn’s Landing in their Plan for Center City included public esplanades and boat slips; a vision that would haltingly guide subsequent development attempts over the next forty years and serve as an international model for the changing face of urban waterfronts.
Bacon’s and Stonorov’s vision for Penn’s Landing was part of a series of sweeping urban proposals that would literally reshape post-industrial Philadelphia (including Society Hill, Penn Center and Independence Mall) and place Philadelphia at the vanguard of post-WW II American design and planning. Yet, it was a vision that would never fully materialize. Plagued, in part, by the 385-foot wide chasm created by Interstate 95 and Columbus Boulevard, Penn’s Landing, under the guidance of the quasi-public Penn’s Landing Corporation became a symbol of a stagnant development-driven waterfront planning model.
In late 2002, the Simon Property Group of Indianapolis withdrew their proposal to the Penn’s Landing Corporation for an indoor entertainment center and 400-car parking garage at the water’s edge leaving city officials anxious to court new developers. Against the backdrop of repeated unsuccessful attempts to fully develop Penn’s Landing’s 39 original acres (14 attempts over 25 years by some accounts), Penn Praxis, of the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania, partnered with the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Penn’s Center for School Study Councils and the Design Advocacy Group of Philadelphia, to design and produce a series of public forums to focus attention on the future of Penn’s Landing. The 2003 Penn’s Landing Forums sought to educate the citizens of Philadelphia as to what was possible in waterfront planning and design, create principles that would guide development and put forth design images based upon those principles.
The Penn’s Landing Forums were successful. They mitigated the typical politics that influence Philadelphia development and raised public awareness about achieving world-class excellence on the waterfront. Three pubic forums were attended by over 700 citizens of Philadelphia over 50 days in the winter of 2003. Informed by expert presentations by PennDesign Dean Gary Hack, AICP, noted author and Penn professor Witold Rybczynski, noted landscape architect James Corner and renowned architect and planner Denise Scott Brown, RIBA, citizens worked with facilitators to create common ground planning principles for the site. These principles were tested in a daylong charrette attended by leading Philadelphia design professionals and students.
Ten pages of editorial and commentary were published in The Philadelphia Inquirer over the course of the forums, including a three-page spread in a Sunday editorial section of The Inquirer on the results of the charrette. The project directly influenced Philadelphia Mayor John Street’s withdrawal of his support for poorly-conceived, politically-driven development proposals and his subsequent calling for the creation of a “river city;” an idea drawn from the language of the forums.
Development pressures had been steadily mounting along the Delaware River in the areas abutting Center City. While much fine-grained residential rehabilitation had been taking place in areas such as Old City, Northern Liberties, Queen Village and Bella Vista for quite some time, development was now pushing the edges of Center City north into traditionally working class Fishtown and south towards Pennsport below Washington Avenue. The city’s 1998 10-year property tax abatement was expanded in 2000 to include new residential construction. This program, in conjunction with historically-low interest rates, helped drive a post-9/11 condominium boom in Center City and along the Delaware Riverfront.
Subsequently, the Pennsylvania State Legislature passed the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act in July 2004, legislation enabling the issuance of 14 licenses for slots parlors in the commonwealth - with two reserved for 5,000-slot stand alone parlors in Philadelphia. With siting of the proposed casinos determined by the state-appointed Gaming Control Board, the fate of Delaware riverfront development was once more a topic of city-wide concern. As it turned out, four developers proposed casinos along the Delaware from Fishtown to Pennsport in response to the December 2005 Gaming Control Board proposal deadline.
Against this backdrop of the combined potential threats of two 5,000-slot casinos and unchecked condominium development, local civic organizations became increasingly alarmed at the pace and quality of development along the central Delaware. In May 2006, Governor Ed Rendell and state senator Vincent Fumo (D-Philadelphia) proposed a moratorium on riparian rights along the Delaware to help stem the crush of condominium development. This move was followed by Philadelphia Councilman Frank DiCicco calling for the establishment of a new non-profit entity to guide the planning and development of the central Delaware. While it was clear that planning was sorely needed for this stretch of the river, the public outcry cast the idea as yet another Philadelphia backroom deal and quelled public discussion.
It should be noted that plans for the North Delaware from Penn Treaty Park to the Poquessing Creek at the northern border of Bensalem and a plan for the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard are in place and being carried out to varying degrees of success. With tremendous development pressures bearing down on the central stretch of the waterfront, it is clear that the central Delaware riverfront from Penn Treat Park south to Pennsport lacks a vision to guide physical development and provide amenities for the public realm.
Seeking a neutral party to convene a city-wide planning process for the central Delaware, Philadelphia Councilman Frank DiCicco’s office, whose First Councilmanic District includes much of the historic Riverwards, approached Penn Praxis in July 2006 about leading a planning process for the central Delaware. Praxis responded with a proposal that builds upon the success of the Penn’s Landing Forums (along with subsequent large-scale planning civic engagement projects such as the 2005 Franklin Conference on School Design with the Philadelphia Inquirer and the 2005-2006 Slots and the City project with the Philadelphia Daily News) as it aims to restore public trust around the design, planning and implementation of a waterfront plan for the central Delaware.
Drawing on the public’s confidence in its ability to lead city-wide conversations around thorny development issues, Praxis will organize outreach to the civic associations abutting the project area, produce a series of public events that will both educate the citizens of Philadelphia as to what is possible in waterfront planning and design and engage the forum participants in the creation of citizen-derived, values-based planning principles to guide the creation of a vision for the waterfront. Working with an internationally-acclaimed design team drawn from both the faculty of the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania and local design talent, Praxis will help create a design vision for the waterfront that is founded on the values put forth in the civic dialogue. The drawings, models and videos of the plan will be presented at public display. The process will culminate with the creation of an implementing entity and strategy designed to protect the public’s role in the creation of the plan.
Philadelphia’s waterfronts are at a crossroads. While cities around the world from Boston to Vancouver to Barcelona have successfully reclaimed their waterfronts (re-imagining the essence of the 21st century post-industrial city), official Philadelphia has largely chosen to ignore centralized planning as a way to balance private development and the public good along its rapidly changing waterfronts. Rather, it has allowed the marketplace, aided by an antiquated zoning code, to define the public realm. As such, it has left the heavy lifting of waterfront planning and implementation to resource-stretched non-profit entities such as the Schuylkill River Development Corporation and the North Delaware Riverfront Taskforce. It is a sad irony that a city that once stood at the vanguard of municipal waterfront design and planning should find itself in this position today.
The proposed Civic Engagement Process, Design Vision and Infrastructure Plan for the Central Delaware is a unique opportunity to redress this situation. By publicly engaging the citizens of the city of Philadelphia in the creation of a world-class design vision for the central Delaware and creating an implementation body designed to protect the public’s role in the design and planning process, Philadelphia will have the opportunity to balance the goals of economic development with the public good. In heeding the lessons of Fredrick Graff’s prophetic municipal vision at the Fairmount Water Works, Philadelphia will once again reclaim its rightful place at the world’s municipal design table while leaving a lasting legacy of design excellence for future generations.