Plans for River Revitalization are Flowing

Northeast Times
By Jon Campisi

For some time now, the Delaware River City Corporation has been working on a plan to revitalize the waterfront along the Delaware River from the Far Northeast south to Port Richmond. The 2-year-old non-profit organization’s work thus far has mainly consisted of vision planning and fund-seeking, all the while hopping through bureaucratic hurdles that are part of dealing with multiple jurisdictional boundaries.

It’s been a tough road, but there finally appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel, as evidenced by the recent visit by dignitaries from abroad who were so impressed with what they’ve heard that they had to see things with their own eyes. “Their sole purpose for coming to Philadelphia was to look at this project in the Northeast,” Sarah Thorp, Delaware River City Corporation’s executive director, said during an interview last week in her Bridesburg office.
The project Thorp refers to is an 11-mile “greenway” trail, consisting of multi-use paths and recreational parks, that DRCC is developing for the stretch between Pulaski Park in Port Richmond and the Poquessing Creek in Torresdale.

The dignitaries were a delegation consisting of some 30 business people, investors and elected officials from Buenos Aires, Argentina, who wanted to check out the area to get some ideas for a similar project they are looking to develop on a 400-acre site along the Rio de la Plata.
The Buenos Aires site is owned by the Techint Group, a consortium of local businesses that plans to create a new community with residential, commercial and recreational space.
On June 13, the representatives met with Mayor Michael Nutter, toured the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and visited various points along the North Delaware River that the DRCC is working to improve. The group had visited a few sites in New York prior to the Philadelphia visit, but Thorp said she had it on good authority that the delegation was most impressed by the potential it saw along the Delaware.
“They wanted to see how we got to the point where we are right now,” Thorp said, noting that the project planned for Argentina is similar in scope to that of the DRCC’s, namely, that both are trying to revitalize old industrial sites.

Thorp is particularly pleased to note that the North Delaware project is finally moving closer to fruition, with four aspects of construction set to begin in 2009.

The first item on the agenda is the extension of a trail within the Pennypack Park on the Delaware, a park that will combine both active and passive recreation. Currently, only half of the park is open to the public. The existing trail will be extended by three quarters of a mile. Construction should begin within a month and is expected to take six to eight weeks to complete.

The second smaller project in the foreseeable future is the construction of a three-mile section of trail connecting Pleasant Hill Park in Torresdale to Pennypack Park on the Delaware in Holmesburg. The trail will be multi-use, ideal for both foot and bike traffic, and will measure 12-feet wide. The trail will most likely be constructed of asphalt, since using pervious materials, while preferable from an environmental standpoint, could hamper already flood-inducing conditions there; much of the trail will be built within a floodplain. But not to worry: “It is going through pretty natural areas that have pretty good stormwater filtration as it is,” Thorp said.

The third project on the horizon is known as the Kensington and Tacony Trail, a two-mile-long trailway — which is in the final design phase — that will stretch from Longshore Avenue in Tacony to Bridge Street in Wissinoming.

The last project within the overall Greenway undertaking that will be built in 2009 will be the construction of a brand new, 4.5-acre recreation space at Lardner’s Point Park, located between Tacony and Wissinoming. Thorp said a significant amount of wetlands — around 1,200 feet worth — will be incorporated into the park project; the shoreline there is currently quite rocky, she said. It will also incorporate restrooms, picnic tables and other amenities.

In Thorp’s view, the entire undertaking is aimed at making Philadelphians, especially Northeast residents, more aware of the natural spaces surrounding them. “It’s all about the public having better public spaces in Philadelphia, that once you revitalize former industrial land … people will want to live there, or people will want to have their businesses there,” she said. “But they don’t want to live next to a vacant brownfield that’s environmentally contaminated.” Because some of the areas along the North Delaware were once home to contaminant-producing industries, Thorp said a big part of the riverfront’s revitalization includes remediation work.

One spot in particular, a section of Pennypack Park on the Delaware, was once home to an unofficial city landfill, Thorp said. But the landfill has since been capped and is safe to walk on.
Part of the goal of the tour for the Argentina representatives, Thorp said, was to “show this delegation that you could take a place that’s abandoned and bad and turn it into” a thriving public space.

Those from Argentina seem to be onboard in concept, Thorp said, since they too aim to redevelop an area that was home to various industrial uses during the past 50 years but has since been eyed as a spot that could benefit the public at large. While a private company bought the 400 acres in Argentina, Thorp said investors are working closely with the government, since, in the end, the project will consist of public use. Thorp said her only hope is that it won’t take the group from Argentina “ten years of planning like it did for us,” and she would like to think reviewing the DRCC’s project gave them some ideas by which to move faster toward their ultimate goal. “They’re really in the very early planning stages,” Thorp said. “This trip to the U.S. was to really be able to envision what’s possible. In order to see what’s possible for the future, it really helps to look at projects that are young at the planning stages and in construction.”

According to Thorp, the DRCC works under an annual administrative budget of $100,000. Thorp is one of three workers. The others are a part-time secretary who reports to the 11-member board of directors and an independent consultant who puts in full-time hours.

Funding for the DRCC comes from the federal, state and local governments, as well as other sources such as private foundations and oil spill mitigation. Construction projects using federal money, which is funneled through the city, go to the lowest bidder, while projects using state money are more flexible on the bidding process, Thorp said. Funding, while a big part of the DRCC’s task, is not all that the non-profit has to contend with. The group also has its work cut out in the area of obtaining rights-of-way and coordinating with local property owners, since much of the trailway to be built snakes through private properties. “It’s not just about money, it’s about extensive coordination with the local neighborhoods, all the local businesses along here and the stakeholders,” she said.

Aside from the riverfront development project, the DRCC also works on land acquisition, fund-raising for future projects such as the trailway undertaking, developing signage and implementing educational programs. “There are so many things that we are eventually going to be doing,” she said. “The projects are so long-term that you have to think far in the future. We just chip away at the iceberg everyday. There’s tons of stuff going on and it’s really exciting.”

Thorp, an Iowa native who spent 10 years in the Navy before relocating to Philadelphia to attend graduate school, said the city desperately needs to improve its riverfront aesthetics and accessibility. This project, along with improvements slated for the waterfront along the central Delaware, should help to paint Philadelphia as a more pedestrian, and public-friendly city.
“Philadelphia really needs it, really needs it,” she said.


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