A bit less than a year from now, Pier 53 will open as a new waterfront park, a place where visitors can touch the water, take in views up and down the Delaware River, and learn about the pier's historic past as Philadelphia's immigration station.
Delaware River Waterfront Corporation President Tom Corcoran, Mayor Michael Nutter and other city, state and community representatives marked the start of constrution with what was hailed as a ground breaking, but what Nutter later said was more accurately described as a "ground walking." There was no ceremonial shovel, but there was a walk from the foot of the pier - which is already Washington Avenue Green park - out to the river end.
In addition to the views of the river, city and bridges, the new park will offer an on-grade path to the tip of the pier and an elevated boardwalk above wetland habitat.
Artist Jody Pinto has designed "Land Buoy," a piece of public art for the end of the pier whose beacon is a nod to the immigration station long past. The spire will stretch 55 feet, and will include an elevated platform visitors can climb to at about 16 feet.
Ecological restoration done at the park will serve as a model for the larger wetlands park that will stretch southward.
Much of the trees and vegetation will be left on site, and portions of some man-made elements currently at the park - like a brick path that extends to the end, a fire circle and a house of sorts built out of branches - will be made into park elements, including a gateway arch at Columbus Boulevard announcing the presence of the park.
The park will also include interpretive signs that share the park's history both as the immigration station where more than one million people entered the United States and as the nation's first navy yard.
The pier was abandoned when ships grew too large for it, Nutter said. Reusing it as park is a sustainable way to help reconnect residents with the waterfront, he said.
Lauren Imgrund of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said the state is supporting projects reconnecting cities with their rivers across the commonwealth. The ecological restoration is a key reason why this project got DCNR support, she said.
Kellie Patrick Gates writes about planning, neighborhood development and the Central Delaware Waterfront. A journalist for more than two decades, she worked for daily newspapers in Central Pennsylvania, Upstate New York and South Florida before coming to Philadelphia in 2003 to write for the Inquirer. Her work has appeared on PlanPhilly since 2007, and she also writes Love, the Inquirer's weekly wedding column. A native of Elk County, Pa., Kellie lives with her husband, Gary, and their dog and two cats.