Old City considers its river values

By Matt Blanchard
For PlanPhilly

At one time, no neighborhood in the city was more intimately connected to the Delaware River than Old City. It was right at the foot of Market Street that Ben Franklin himself stepped off a ship one morning in 1723. He strolled up to Second Street and spent all he had on three puffy bread rolls.

At a public forum about the future of the Central Delaware Waterfront Thursday night, about 50 residents of Old City assembled to discuss the area’s modern relationship to the river, and to debate what values should shape future development there.

Old City itself has certain changed. As one of the original comeback neighborhoods in Philadelphia, the area has completed the shift from wholesalers and light industry to art galleries and luxury lofts, and is now seeing a spate of new housing construction. From just 225 residents in 1970, Old City’s population topped 2,650 in the year 2000. The dense block of Second Street where Franklin bought his rolls is now where Philadelphia and South Jersey go to party.

And the route to the river has changed. Long concrete bridges carry pedestrians across the trench of Interstate 95 at Market, Chestnut and Walnut Streets, whereas north of Market, the highway and its system of ramps rise to form a concrete wall, blocking views and access to the Delaware.

With the recent approval of the Bridgeman’s View Tower, a project that will rise over 700 feet north of Old City on the river at Poplar, a sense of urgency charged Thursday night’s discussion.

“I feel like this is our last chance,” resident Heidi Nivling told the crowd. “We can do something special – it doesn’t have to be bigger and grander – but we can be something special and unique if we hurry up.”

“We would like to see the pedestrian scale of Philadelphia extended to the waterfront, rather than see soulless commercial development,” said architect Linda O’Gwynn.

Just as in the Kensington and South Philadelphia public sessions, PennPraxis moderators split the Old City contingent in two, and then subdivided them again into discussion groups of five. Each discussion group was to develop a list of 5 values they thought defined their neighborhood, and then consolidate their list with larger groups until all 50 residents stood behind 5 or 6 basic principles.

The process was contentious at times, but consensus was reached through exchanges like the following about the value “Open Space.”

“Open space is fine, but we live down here because it’s an intense urban environment,” said architect Thomas Purdy. “As the river passes this intense density, you should feel that. It shouldn’t be another West River Drive.”

“It’s like extending the city to the river,” someone else chimed in.

“How about open space, balanced with density and human scale?” suggested moderator Louise Guigliano.

“Yes. But we don’t have enough about the connection between the city and the river.” Purdy replied.

“Yeah,” someone else interjected. “There should be something to do on the waterfront when you get there.”

The Old City delegation managed to translate its hopes and dreams into six values to guide future development. They are:

 Pedestrian accessibility through lively paths
 Open space and natural elements balanced with density
 Preservation of the area’s history
 Diversity of culture and activities (or as one woman said: “It shouldn’t just be an entertainment world.”)
 Improved Zoning and Enforcement
 Maintaining a sense of community and neighborhood on a human scale.

As the group broke up, seemingly satisfied, resident Jay Nachman leapt up at the front for a final plea, raising a water bottle overhead for emphasis.

“I still believe we’ve got to cover I-95 and build over it! You could have all that area for development,” Nachman said. “If people buy into that vision – help me translate that into a value!”

Nachman found support, but was jumping the gun. Building a basic consensus about values is the first baby-step to a better riverfront. The discussion of specific design ideas – on which there is no shortage of opinions – is a knot to be untied later.

Matt Blanchard lives in, teaches in and writes from Philadephia

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