Someday, it seems all but certain now, the Broad Street Subway will be extended to the Navy Yard (only a century ago shipbuilding workers demanded it); the rail yard at 30th Street Station will be developed (proposed in the 1950s); next train and bus information will be available to SEPTA riders (as it is for most transit riders around the world); the Phillies will win three games in a row (well…)
No, I meant it: persistence is catching up to vision in 2017 Philadelphia. Long-imagined and seemingly impossible projects are underway, from the construction of the Viaduct Rail Park to the restoration of the Metropolitan Opera House. And now, Penn’s Landing.
On Friday, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, and Janet Haas, the board chair of the William Penn Foundation, along with officials of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, announced that all but $10 million in funding had been committed for a $225 million plan to reconnect the central waterfront at Penn’s Landing to the street grid of Old City and Society Hill. While the plan falls short of the dream of removing I-95 from the center of Philadelphia, it effectively gives the city an eight-block-long central linear park that will extend from 6th Street to the Delaware River. And it explicitly sets aside the block between Chestnut and Market Streets along the waterfront for a high density neighborhood the new Penn’s Landing park will need to be successful. Advocates of the project estimate, conservatively, an additional $1.6 billion in tax revenue from the private real estate development that should follow the $225 million public investment.
Construction seems likely to begin in 2020.
The project will include an extension of the South Street pedestrian bridge over Columbus Boulevard; a two-mile long protected bicycle path; and reconstruction of the Delaware River tidal basin and marina at Spruce Street, now the home of the popular Spruce Street Harbor Park.
But the heart of the plan is a four-acre cap over I-95 and Columbus Boulevard between Walnut and Chestnut Streets that will include gardens, a cafe, a spray park/ice skating rink, and the Irish famine and Scottish immigration memorial sculptures and total replacement of the eight-acre, stone terrace Penn’s Landing with a wide waterfront lawn. Hargreaves Associates, a landscape architecture firm, which completed similar projects in Louisville, Chattanooga, and San Diego, has furnished the deceptively simple design.
The cap over I-95 and Columbus Boulevard is the key connector between the city and the riverfront. Much has been said over the years about the necessity of this single intervention that will, at least in this one critical spot, stitch the city back to its origin and its historic life-blood, the Delaware River. But I’m equally hopeful that the new park will invigorate and realign (in the urban imagination at least) the experience of Independence National Historical Park. Beyond the long-ago closed path through the arches of Independence Hall, the INHP has never quite fit into the daily rhythms of Philadelphians. Because of that, most of the small gardens and pastoral lawns are empty despite a substantial increase in tourists to the park’s major historical sites and the landscape in key areas is poorly maintained (the jewel of American heritage is obscured by tall weeds).
The new Penn’s Landing may correct even this Philadelphia white elephant, but particularly if planners and INHP officials collaborate. With improved crossings at 5th, 4th, 3rd, and 2nd Streets, the everyday Philadelphians might discover the delight of a central park, much of which has been sitting there awaiting them for more than fifty years.