Friday, February 14, 2014

Center City's Final Frontier

Reviewing past proposals for last night's blog revealed an overwhelming number of failed projects in Center City's first, yet final frontier: the Delaware River.

The wild success of the Schuylkill River continues to defy local convention with endless projects coming to fruition, and developers eagerly sidle up to the river. Why not the Delaware? Had the waterfront's industrial infrastructure not been demolished for Interstate 95, would it be an extension of Old City today? Perhaps, but we'll never know.

America's favorite billionaire gas bag and comb-over enthusiast, Donald Trump, didn't bring its A-game to Philadelphia, neither in location nor style, particularly when compared to those in New York or Chicago.

But even without a sunken highway separating Penns Landing from Society Hill, the Delaware River has some ills that have nothing to do with Philadelphia's grid.

The truth is, the Schuylkill is the perfect urban river. It's conveniently sailed and kayaked, it's narrow enough to stroll across one of its many bridges, and most importantly, whichever bank you're on, there's something on the other side.

Mark Mendelson's Liberty Landing was one of the Delaware River's wilder proposals, claiming to be a city in itself residents would never need to leave. Pitched around 2002, it surfaced at an overwhelmingly optimistic time.

If the banks of the Delaware were lined with its post-industrial port environment, it would likely be Old City on the river. It would be a neighborhood, still detached from Philadelphia's core by a wide boulevard. It would be packed dense with lofts and nightlife, but with little room for recreation. Had that been its fate, it would be of no concern. Joggers would take to the Schuylkill Banks and the Parkway for their daily runs, just as they do today.

Varenhorst proposed relocating a restored SS United States at Penns Landing.

Penns Landing's debacle is two fold, and its cyclical problems continue to reaffirm themselves. Developers propose condos and apartments, then walk away because the moderate development that exists doesn't succeed, leaving it desolate for future developers to do the same. Dockside and Waterfront Square attempted to bring life to the Delaware River, buy isolated themselves behind suburban landscaping, offering no way for future development to interact. The Hyatt is Penns Landing's best attempt at urban design, yet despite its height, relationship with the sidewalk, and access to one of the interstate's best caps, its guest treat it like a suburban Hampton Inn, opting to drive to Society Hill for dinner.

The waterfront's absent development isn't its only obstacle. The Delaware River itself is massive, post-industrial, and intimidating. The Race Street Pier brings some of the quaint manageability that recreationalists seek in a park, but the bank's vast nothingness stares across a wide river at even less. As it is, it just isn't a pleasant place to be. Will landscaping change that or simply paint the nothing green?

Hargreaves Associates' latest proposal for Penns Landing caps a sizeable portion of Center City's I-95, carrying a large lawn to the water. But the most important component is residential.

Parks are typically a reaction to these dire situations, but successful parks and born from demand. As much as I enjoy the outdoors, Philadelphia already has some of the best urban parks in America and many are easily accessible by foot. Although developers continue to prove they see the Delaware River as a risky investment, the best solution for Penns Landing would be to replace the built environment that was lost.

The most important component in the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation's latest proposal will be residential as it brings its own demand for public space. Fortunately it was included in the plan, but requiring private investment, it will be the hardest component to sell.

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