Saturday, February 2, 2013

Delaware River Debacle

PlanPhilly just reported that engineering will soon begin on a new eight acre park capping I-95 and extending to the waterfront, and the rendering looks pretty fantastic.

Unfortunately, the headline is a bit of a misnomer, and the rendering a bit misleading. By "engineering," the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation will be performing a $400,000 study to determine a master plan and to begin discussions with private developers.

Sound familiar? That's because it is.

The DRWC has been engaged in multiple studies in the ten short years I've lived here. In fact the city has been trying to solve the Delaware River debacle ever since it cut it off from the city in the 1970's.  

A quick Google search brings up countless "Master Plans" and fantastically grand renderings of a new Penn's Landing brimming with condos, amusement parks, museums, even an aerial tram carrying Philadelphians across the river to Camden's waterfront, which inexplicably remains more successful than ours.

Why the DRWC continues to tease Philadelphians with these master plans and exciting proposals (if they can even be called that) is a mystery to me. Part of me wonders if the powers that be at the DRWC want to see how long they can keep getting paid to push paper.

After all, any amateur architecture nerd with a laptop and Photoshop can put together a lavish rendering of a new and lively Penn's Landing. That gets passed around the local blog circuit, excites and pisses off neighbors, while those employed by the DRWC get paid to watch the show. A few months later, the DRWC passes off a new "engineering" effort to PlanPhilly and spends the next year working on the next master plan.

Thirty years later, we still aren't asking why?

We've managed to put tens of thousands of recreationalists on the Schuylkill River in the last decade, and while it's a much smaller river with fewer logistical obstacles, the city has been actively struggling with Penn's Landing much longer. In fact, given Philadelphia's historic reputation for pipe dreams, the successful changes on the Schuylkill River are mind boggling.

Part of that success might be in the piece meal approach taken on the Schuylkill River. Instead of an overall master plan requiring billions of dollars and speculative investment, Boathouse Row, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Waterworks, the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, the Friends of the Schuylkill Banks, and the Schuylkill River Trail are all working on smaller, individual projects and seamlessly wove them together into an organic and unintentional master plan that no CAD hack ever saw coming. 

It's true that those investing in the Schuylkill River are working with existing assets that the Delaware River lacks, but that doesn't change the fact that the approach that's failed the Delaware River for the past thirty years still doesn't work.

In fact that lack of assets is what the DRWC needs to target, not tax funded improvements to a burden no one wants to walk to. Pedestrianization and interstate caps are great, but they're supplementary improvements at best.

Parks are rarely destination attractions. The Schuylkill River's proximity to Center City and the PMA serves as its own destination attraction while the Delaware River sits isolated and sparsely populated. We need to bring Center City's built environment to the Delaware River, not just its sidewalks.

Without new residents and shoppers on Delaware Avenue, any master plan is only going to inhibit the organic creativity on the part of developers and architects who have a shot at bringing those people to the water.

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