Potential on the waterfront

Northeast Times
By Brian Rademaekers

“Life is change,” explains Stella Oskiera.
The 76-year-old West Torresdale resident should know. She has spent her years — first growing up in Port Richmond, and later raising a family in the Northeast — along the banks of the Delaware River. One of America’s earliest pathways of trade and exploration, the waterway has been at the front line of nation-shaping trends for centuries.
In her seven decades, Oskiera has witnessed much of that change firsthand. And while the seasoned Northeast resident has seen sweeping transformations in her life, she is not done yet. Marching over Bridesburg’s riverfront of coal dust, concrete, weed-strewn fields and railroad ties on June 16, Oskiera was on ground zero of a new era along the Delaware.
The scene was that of the former Philadelphia Coke industrial plant, and more than 100 people joined Oskiera as developers and urban planners described a revitalized riverfront that will soon bear 2,000 residential units and a rustic path on the water’s edge.
Spanning 78 acres, the proposed development would stretch north from Orthodox Street toward the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge and the Rohm & Haas chemical plant.
“It will contain just about every type of housing style you can imagine,” said John Dean, vice president of Westrum Development, the company taking on the massive project.
The first phase of the plan, calling for 900 stacked townhomes, should break ground in 2009. Later, more homes are to be built closer to the river.
For a community that has watched industry along the river crumble steadily over the last several decades, the Westrum proposal is an exciting shift in direction.
“You could have knocked me over with a proverbial feather, to have that kind of change happen that fast,” said Bob Borski, a former member of Congress, as he recalled the day Westrum officials came to his office with the development idea.
Borski, who ended 20 years of service to the region’s 3rd Congressional District in 2003, said his tenure in the House of Representatives was marked by a time when the riverfront seemed inexorably tied to defunct industry.
And while the former congressman is thrilled to see investment along the Delaware again, he seems most happy about plans to open the river to recreation. Borski sits on the board of the Delaware River City Corp., a non-profit group pushing to create a lengthy waterfront trail throughout the city’s Northeast.
“All over the world, people celebrate their rivers. Here in Philadelphia, we hide it,” Borski told the crowd on the June 16 tour. “Our goal is to take away that separation.”
In all, the DRCC seeks to devote more than 700 acres of vacant riverfront land in the Northeast to developing the waterfront trail.
In the future, the plan could be part of the East Coast Greenway, a grassroots effort that has existed for 14 years to link scenic urban areas stretching from Maine to Florida. The section in Northeast Philadelphia will be known as the North Delaware Greenway, and will connect the Bucks County riverfront with recreational areas currently being plotted out by the city’s Central Delaware Advisory Group.
The segment of the trail on the Westrum site will span nearly 2,000 feet of riverfront and feature public parking near Orthodox Street as well as connections to the neighborhood through five new streets in the Westrum development.
Walkers and bike riders also will soon be able to use the trail as a loop that will connect to a scenic extension of Delaware Avenue, from Lewis Street in Port Richmond to Buckius Street in Bridesburg. Beside the tree-lined boulevard will be a bike path that connects to the riverfront trail. That project is set to begin next spring.
While clearly a boon for residents long cut off from the Delaware River, the pathway will be more than just a recreational park. The project also will result in an environmental cleanup in hope of restoring the area’s natural habitat. Part of that will be reintroducing native plants that have been choked out by invasive species. Another more daunting aspect involves reclaiming the river’s banks, currently a combination of eroded cliffs and concrete.
The goal is to bring back the freshwater tidal areas known as “mud flats,” an ecosystem the Pennsylvania Environmental Council’s Patrick Starr describes as “one of the most endangered habitats in the state.”
In addition to serving as vice president of the council, an environmental advocacy group, Starr is secretary of the DRCC.
“Bridesburg, in the future, will be a very important stopover for migratory birds,” said Starr, describing a waterfront that could be not unlike the one William Penn found when he came here more than 300 years ago. “You are not going to see a whole lot of mowed grass like you might get along Kelly Drive, but it will be pretty.”
For people like Oskiera, that the plan is actually underway is a dream come true.
“I love the river, it is just so beautiful and so relaxing just to sit there and look at it,” said Oskiera.
When she was growing up, spending time on the river was just a way of life.
“We used to walk down Allegheny Avenue, right to the river, and they had boats that would take us to Soupy Island,” remembered Oskiera, referring to a now-closed summer camp that used to give youngsters a break from the inner city.
Old-timers aren’t the only ones excited about the planned site. Fred Moore, a much younger Holmesburg resident who also took part in the hike, is pleased to see a project that will open the waterfront.
“I’m really excited about this . . . the view is just incredible,” said Moore. “It’s not too often that a developer makes room for public access, but that is what they are planning for here.”
Still, for some residents like Howard Pyott, who worked at the Rohm & Haas plant for 33 years, the coming of the Westrum site marks the end of a time when industry along the river made Bridesburg and other riverfront neighborhoods a blue-collar bastion.
“All that industry that was here provided a lot of jobs for the folks in the ’burg,” said Pyott.
Acknowledging that building thousands of homes likely to be bought by Center City office workers is “its own kind of industry,” Pyott welcomes the change.
“I think this is going to be real nice,” he said. ••
Reporter Brian Rademaekers can be reached at 215-354-3039 or [email protected]


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