Delaware Waterfront: Eliminating Stigmas and Creating Links

Race Street Pier was completed in 2011 and has since become a popular hangout spot for Philadelphians.

The physical barriers that have separated the Delaware River waterfront from Center City have created a stigma that the two locations are not related.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation is on a mission to break down that stigma and rejoin Philadelphia with its waterfront, both literally and culturally.

“Our ultimate goal is to reconnect the people of Philadelphia with their waterfront,” said Jodie Milkman, vice president of communications and planning for the DRWC.

Philadelphia was historically a major port city that relied heavily on its waterfront. Most of the city’s oldest buildings are located near the river. The Wood Street steps, located on Front Street more than a block back from the river’s current edge, mark where the Delaware River used to reach.

However, the need for more highways in the mid-20th century brought a huge change to the landscape – Interstate 95. Construction on the Center City span of I-95 began in 1972 and effectively put both a physical and mental barrier between the river and the rest of the city.

“People have a perception that the waterfront and the city are not linked or related,” Milkman said. “In fact, there are 47 streets that either cross over or go under I-95 to connect the river with the city.”

SEPTA buses have helped to make the Penn's Landing area more accessible to Center City.
SEPTA buses have helped to make the Penn’s Landing area more accessible to Center City.

This past year, the DRWC received a $5 million grant from the William Penn Foundation to improve community connections between the river and its neighborhoods.

Some of the major walking paths that already connect Center City with the Delaware River are Spruce Street, Market Street, Race Street and Chestnut Street.

Race Street Pier, which opened for visitors in 2011, is connected to Old City via a sidewalk that dips under I-95. The part of the sidewalk that goes under the major highway is architecturally blended with the aesthetic of Race Street Pier as colorful signage is placed under the overpass.

Race Street Pier’s naming is also important. Typically, the old piers were named by number. It used to be known as “Municipal Pier 11” but is now connected to the city both physically and in name.

“I find myself bringing my dog [to Race Street Pier] more than the park near our house,” Steve Berger, a resident of Old City said.  “It’s easy to get to and it’s quiet, except for the occasional passing Duck Boat.”

The DRWC has some exciting plans in the works for future projects. Most notably is the construction of connector streets further north of the Center City district. Spring Garden Street and Columbia Avenue will be more tightly-linked to the Delaware.

The waterfront at Spring Garden Street is becoming wildly popular. The increased popularity of the Northern Liberties neighborhood among young people has made the location highly desirable and the subject of many restoration projects.

Festival Pier at Columbus Boulevard and Spring Garden Street, one of the DRWC’s many projects, is seeing more concerts this summer than in previous years. It is becoming absolutely pertinent that people are able to access the waterfront from Northern Liberties and via public transportation.

The proposed Spring Garden Street connector will re-deisgn the already-existing overpass between the neighborhood and the river. New lighting, fresh artistic touches and a revitalized Market-Frankford line subway station will make the pathway more pedestrian-friendly.

“It’s a bit creepy at night,” Alexa Finn of Northern Liberties said about the Spring Garden Street connector’s current state. “It’s dimly-lit and just has a sketchy vibe about it.”

The Columbia Avenue connector in Fishtown will link the up-and-coming neighborhood with Penn Treaty Park on the waterfront. The joint project with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PENNDOT) will be aesthetically pleasing and a nod to the area’s history.

“It’s kind of awkward to get to [Penn Treaty Park],” Kristy DiGiacomo of Fishtown said. “There isn’t really a very pedestrian-friendly way to get to the park right now. I would love a new sidewalk.”

Artist Donald Lipski has been recruited by the DRWC to help design animal sculptures that will pay homage to the area’s Lenape tribe. The part of the sidewalk that will go under I-95 will be painted to seamlessly blend the neighborhood with the park.

The projected outcome of these projects is positive. Spruce Street Harbor Park, a brand new attraction on a notable connector street, saw huge crowds in its opening weekend.

Spruce Street Harbor Park's opening weekend was a huge success as crowds turned out in droves to see the new waterfront attraction.
Spruce Street Harbor Park’s opening weekend was a huge success as crowds turned out in droves to see the new waterfront attraction.

“I’m kind of surprised, actually,” Charles Haddaway, one of the park’s opening weekend visitors, said. “[My friends and I] were in Old City and kind of just wandered over here. It was really easy to get to.”

The DRWC expects more visitors to find themselves on the banks of the Delaware as the summer progresses.

– Text, photos and video by Hayley Condon and Madeline Bates.

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