Friday, June 26, 2009

One Small Step for the Delaware Waterfront

Today's column takes us down to the river.

By Inga Saffron
Inquirer Architecture Critic

Anyone who still believes that nothing changes in Philadelphia should have attended last week's Battle of the Architects at Festival Pier on the Delaware waterfront. The public event pitted four top landscape-design firms against one another for a chance to build a city park on a wildly overgrown finger pier at the foot of Race Street.

Two things about the evening are worth noting: It was clear that any of the shortlisted firms would do a first-rate job at Pier 11. And not one had gotten this far in the running by making a campaign contribution.

Serious juried design competitions are held in cities all the time, but it's been too long since Philadelphia sponsored one of this caliber. Think back to the last time the city held a contest for one of its Delaware waterfront properties.

The year was 2002. The site, the ill-starred Penn's Landing. Creating a good public space was apparently the last thing on then-Mayor John F. Street's mind.

The nine finalists were all developers - not designers - and included a felon who did time for drug trafficking. The so-called competition dragged on for 22 months, long enough to extract campaign donations from the applicants. Ultimately, the competition was canceled after one of the jurors was indicted in the shakedown.

No wonder we're still marveling that the city's Delaware River Waterfront Corp. - successor to the Penn's Landing Corp. - is putting design first.

The Pier 11 competition is different in other respects. After three decades of trying to force Penn's Landing to lead Philadelphia's waterfront revival, the city has broadened its horizons. As the agency looks beyond Penn's Landing, its goal is simply to turn a one-acre finger pier in the crook of the Ben Franklin Bridge into an attractive park.

If the city's ambitions are now smaller, they are also more attainable. Pier 11 is all of one acre. No one expects the $3.5 million pier park to carry the whole waterfront. The city intends to select a winner this summer and open the park in 2010.

It is reasonable, however, to expect the project to demonstrate that Philadelphia is not a place where design goes to die. This park - funded with a grant from the William Penn Foundation - needs to look great and feel great. Given the city's parlous finances, the park may provide the only ribbon for Mayor Nutter to cut before the next election.

The pier should be a hipster magnet, not unlike New York's new High Line - designed, incidentally, by one of the finalists, James Corner's Field Operations. At the same time, the park needs to be a comfortable respite for walkers, bikers, and families. Right now, not a single blade of grass or soft surface can be found along Center City's stretch of Delaware riverfront.

The four finalists all seem to appreciate the pier's place in the waterfront cosmos. While they weren't asked for fully developed designs, a couple ventured in that direction. Admittedly, all that blue-skying is irresistible. Yet some may be disappointed to learn that $3.5 million doesn't go far.

The most full-blown scheme came from Philadelphia's José Almiñana of Andropogon. The firm sees the pier as a demonstration project for the latest green gadgetry, such as wind turbines and solar panels. Although you have to admire the spirit, one result is that the public spaces seem to take a backseat to the educational aspects.

Field Operation's approach sounds a lot more fun. Corner, a Penn professor who likes to incorporate the gritty detritus of the Industrial Age, emphasized that the park should be "a great place to hang out." All he had to do was show slides of crowds at the High Line to make his case. But he acknowledges its gorgeous finishes are beyond Philadelphia's means, and he's more likely to use earth formations to sculpt the park.

W Architecture of New York sounded themes similar to Corner's, but with more emphasis on exploring the pier's physical properties and history. The group floated the intriguing idea of cutting off parts of the sturdy structure, to reshape the rectangular surface and let people engage with the water. That's another great idea that sounds expensive.

Perhaps that's why Brooklyn's Michael Van Valkenburgh dispensed entirely with clever ideas and instead touted his ability to work with a small budget. Unfortunately, such a hard-nosed attitude isn't very inspiring, and that's what this pier has to do for Philadelphia's neglected waterfront.

While this project may be modest, it must set the tone for the future. The city is about to embark on a detailed master plan for the central Delaware, based on PennPraxis' Civic Vision. Parks will be a tool to populate the waterfront with people and new development.

Pier 11 is a great place to try out new ideas. Unlike Penn's Landing, Race Street is fully tied into Center City's street grid. It's an effortless walk from the Mr. Barstool showroom at Second and Race Streets in Old City. You dip under I-95 and cross Columbus Boulevard at grade, with a traffic light.

What's good about the link may be hard to see right now, with cars racing to the I-95ramps and PATCO trains clattering overhead. The problem is that the city stopped thinking of this stretch as a pedestrian realm and let it decline. Sidewalks were cut off unexpectedly. The Delaware River Port Authority was allowed to colonize the
Columbus Boulevard corner to park its machinery.

As every finalist noted, the level of pedestrian comfort in this "upland" connection needs to be restored if Pier 11 is to succeed. It won't take much - new sidewalks, some landscape buffers.

The city might even treat the area as an extension of the pier park by opening up the fenced-off space under the bridge, where an old port building sits mothballed. The photographer Zoe Strauss, who organizes an annual photo show underneath I-95 in South Philly, has opened our eyes to the beauty of the highway's arcaded columns.

These are exactly the sort of improvements for which federal stimulus money is intended.

They're also improvements that will make this discarded zone an urban place again. Until that happens, no amount of good design will rescue the Delaware waterfront.


Blogger rasphila said...

These are excellent proposals for an area that needs good planning and development. It's too bad that on the one hand the city is looking at proposals to create urban parkland, and on the other (as detailed in a previous posting) one slots casino is proposing to pave over precious riverfront land if it needs more parking.

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Amy Esther said...

I've walked that little stretch a thousand times, and it would be amazing if something could be done to make it friendlier. I love some of the views and the mural of running horses under the bridge - but I haven't enjoyed watching men urinate publicly or having my car windows broken. Here's hoping that it can be turned into something attractive!

10:25 PM  

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