Saturday, December 18, 2010

How to build a successful waterfront

Why is everybody still talking about Portland, the city that stole legend Bradley Maule? That city is like coffee in the 90's. And why shouldn't it be? They do things differently there.

I like to think I beat the hype with my brief stint in the City of Roses just after college graduation. Portland was lovely in 1999. Hipsters were still Emo, you could smoke in their gritty beer holes, and the Me Generation couldn't walk yet. When you told someone you were moving to Oregon, people would ask, "Why on earth would you move there?" It wasn't overpopulated with Brooklyn refugees scarfing down Soy Joy. It wasn't full of Prius driving idiots decked out in $300 peasant jeans from Urban Outfitters. Pioneer Square was full of homeless kids from wealthy suburbs and "Vaseline Alley" lived up to its name. Like Philadelphia, it was real, albeit in a very different way.

It still retains a unique funk regardless of the transplants. Like all cities, demographics will continue to shift. The real estate market certainly fed the nomadic droves looking for something new. I assume as the economy calms down, when people start looking at their houses as homes again instead of investments, the weirdos that invaded all of our American cities will return to that strange limbo known as suburbia.

Ongoing rant aside, Portland continues to do things right. With all these proposals, renderings, and discussions about our Delaware Waterfront which ultimately amount to one giant pipe dream, Portland, roughly one third the size of Philadelphia, managed to move a major interstate across the river and implement one of the most successful urban waterfronts in the country. It wasn't rocket science, it was action.

In Philadelphia we love to talk but do little else. When discussions begin to encompass droves of unqualified neighborhoods organizations that aren't schooled in urban planning or economics, you might as well stop the conversation right there because that plan isn't going anywhere.

Portland found - after the herculean feat of moving Interstate 5 across a river - that the simplest solutions are the best solutions. The waterfront is little more than a patch of grass between Front Street and the Willamette River lined with a handful of unique fountains. Aside from the absence of the interstate, what makes it succeed isn't in what it is but in what it can do.

Almost weekly throughout the summer the park hosts concerts and events, Fleet Week, even brightly lit carnivals. Philadelphia, perhaps because of our inferiority complex, insists on doing everything big or not at all. An aerial tram across the Delaware River? Really? Instead of going grand, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation should be spending its time looking for local carnivals, circuses, small concerts that don't require a huge stage and a staff of fifty.

Give people a reason to walk across the interstate and maybe you can stir up enough money for the lavish luxuries later. I'd make the short trek to Penns Landing if I caught a glimpse of a neon clad ferris wheel.

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