By Alan Jaffe
A new vision for the Central Delaware waterfront, forged over 13 months in more than 200 collaborative, occasionally contentious civic meetings, was formally introduced last night with dramatic flare and some compromise on the most disputed elements.
The proposal to bury a section of I-95 was softened by less drastic options. The dense riverfront street grid was proposed with a nod toward developers’ concerns. And the casinos, the hottest issue, were plotted on the plan – and then dissolved on an alternative map.
The audience of about 1,200 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center cheered the proposals and offered a standing ovation to the concluding video fly-over, a time-warp that transformed the current waterfront into an active, thriving scene of green spaces and well-balanced development and communities.
Approval for the plan, which was coordinated by PennPraxis, the clinical arm of the design department at the University of Pennsylvania, came from nearly every front. Mayor Street lauded the process for engaging the river ward communities and taking on a challenge that has eluded the city for decades. Michael DiBerardinis, secretary of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, called the Civic Vision “meaningful and important.” Riverfront developer Bart Blatstein said the plan is “a great start.”
Dissenting voices in the audience condemned any allowance for casinos, intermittently disrupting the presentation by PennPraxis executive director Harris Steinberg, who has guided the Civic Vision through several combative meetings. Outside the Convention Center, a six-foot skunk urged people to wear clothespins to show their displeasure with the Foxwoods and SugarHouse sites.
A panel of government, business and community leaders were invited to respond to the presentation, and they lent their support to most aspects of the plan. But there was a clash over the issue of funding a major I-95 reconfiguration. Rina Cutler, deputy secretary at PennDot, warned that an estimated $10 billion needed to depress the interstate at Penn’s Landing would be hard, if not impossible, to raise. Mayor Street disagreed. Initial response to large projects is always negative, Street said, but “there is plenty of money” if the public says “this is the priority.”
Overall, the evening was upbeat, congratulatory, and very hopeful.
The mayor noted that “plan after plan failed” to make the best use of the 13-acre parcel on the Center City riverfront. “The thing that should distinguish this report from other studies is you,” he told the audience last night. “We never had this kind of community engagement” in the process before, and “what will deter it from sitting on a shelf is you not letting it happen.”
With just over 50 days left in his term, he urged that the plan more forward with the formation of an organization that will take up the banner and “ensure that this work has not been done in vain.”
Steinberg then took the podium to present the culmination of his team’s year-long labor in an eloquent, 30-minute sales pitch. With archival, contemporary and conceptual images of the waterfront beamed on two screens flanking him, and on screens in an adjoining hall for the overflow crowd, Steinberg emphasized the historical and regional context of the Central Delaware -- from William Penn’s arrival, through the riverfront’s industrial dominance, through the traffic-jammed state of things today. The initial question was, “how do we create a framework for growth?” he said.
Movement refers to connections across and beneath I-95 to the river, a street grid that replicates the feeling of Center City life on the waterfront, and a north-south urban boulevard.
A reborn Delaware Boulevard, the “spine” of the riverfront, would mean keeping a six-lane avenue for now, but eventually “skinnying up” the current road to allow for a light-rail or other mass transit line down the center.
The street grid would recall the 17th-century template designed by William Penn “which has guided our identity,” Steinberg said. “We need to think about extending that to the river,” not only to disperse traffic, but also as “the connective tissue” that links land parcels.
To make it happen, the city must build on the collaboration of the community, DiBerardinis continued. There must be consistent city leadership to shepherd the plan forward, and it must move from a vision to a detailed planning process. Strategic investment must be made and leveraged through the local, state and federal governments, he said. And “early victories” should be implemented “so people can see the reality.”