22 June 09: Dreaming on the Delaware

Here's a short timeline. In November 2006, Penn Praxis held the third of three tours for the public along the Central Delaware Riverfront whose redevelopment Mayor John Street had charged them to lead (based on the efforts of Councilman Frank DiCicco and his aide Brian Abernathy). Praxis executive director Harris Steinberg conducted the walk with Planning Commission executive director Janice Woodcock, Mayor Street, State Representatives Mike O'Brien and John Taylor, Paul Levy and others, heading from Penn Treaty Park to Pulaski Park via the former Cramp's Shipyard and former Reading Railroad lands. In September 2007, CDoc and I focused in on the Reading yards, over 200 acres of post-industrial emptiness now owned by what's left of the Conrail corporation. A month later, October 2007, some of this site's readers offered up their thoughts on how such a vast amount of riverfront land could be re-imagined. In September 2008, I got an email from a Drexel student named Trevor Booz saying he and some of his classmates were considering doing their senior project in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering on Conrail's property, and would I give them a hand. In June 2009, Trevor Booz, Erica Leeds, Kyle Jones, Tom Donnelly and Rick Antoine walked the stage at Drexel as members of the newest graduating class with a senior project marked with an A+ tucked in their back pocket.

The nine months that passed between found the five students on site in Port Richmond, countless hours in the university's and city's libraries, and at least once, in the office of the (new) executive director of the city Planning Commission. Applying their education and expertise in areas of structural engineering, HVAC, architecture and a collective environmental awareness, Team 8 set out to breathe new life into Conrail's riverfront property -- within reason. As I mentioned in my guest column in today's Metro, dreaming up dreams for enormous, open, adjacent properties -- Conrail's, Anderson's and PECO's properties add up to nearly 300 contiguous acres of potential -- can be intoxicating. So credit where it's due: Drexel's engineering department appreciates your dreams, but expects them to be ground in reality.

Rather than spend a full school year envisaging a starry-eyed, billion dollar Philatopia with seamless gateways to Kensington and North Philadelphia via the Lehigh Viaduct and an effective ferry system to Palmyra Cove, Petty's Island, Penn's Landing and Camden, Team 8 devised a reasonable plan for a reasonable chunk of it, 38 acres, based on a series of objectives: economic improvement, environmental impact, transit accessibility, fitting the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware Riverfront, and financial feasibility. Projected LEED items included effective stormwater management, the use of local materials, brownfield reclamation by the site's reuse, low energy practices, and in a specific example, recycling unsalvageable concrete from Pier 18, the McMyler Coal Dumper.

The Coal Dumper -- or the Ore Pier, if you like -- is the de facto symbol of this entire stretch of morose riverfront. Nearly everything that once made the 20-some piers between Allegheny Avenue and Berks Street the marine sector of the Workshop of the World is gone. The 145' Port Richmond Elevator, Cramp's dry docks, even most of the rail network that fans from Lehigh out to the many piers . . . it's all gone. But the Coal Dumper, dormant for decades, still stands as a testament to reinforced concrete. Its swooping mechanism once unloaded Pennsylvania coal from Reading Railroad cars, one by one, onto outbound ships. At work, the apparatus looked something like THIS.

A fortress of feet-thick walls and manufactured symmetry, the Coal Dumper may well be unknown to the majority of modern Philadelphians, but to industrial historians, off roaders, graffiti artists, paintballers and neighborhood teenagers with a case of Natty Light, it's hallowed ground. To Team 8, the Coal Dumper is a necessary centerpiece.

The first consideration for the site was a reindustrialization, but with the Port of Philadelphia's efforts focused on Packer Avenue's expansion into Southport, and with the planned deepening of the ship channel ending a mile south at the Ben Franklin Bridge, Team 8 opted for a softer use, with the potential for steady revenue in a more academic avenue. In the 3D rendering above, the viewer looks from the top of the Coal Dumper toward a new Museum of Industrial History. In it are artifacts from the city's industrial heyday -- Reading Railroad engines, Stetson hats, Globe Dye fabrics -- and interpretive and educational programs to explain them.

While a new museum would need a new non-profit organization that would rely on new donations, the office space the building shares would not. Rentable office and retail space provide the opportunity for companies to relocate to an attractive new riverfront location and provide the park a steady, annual revenue. A cafeteria akin to that at Urban Outfitters' Navy Yard headquarters ties the tourist sector and office sector together in a common space.

The main entrance to the park, the intersection of Lehigh Avenue and Richmond Street, is effectively the backdoor to a site whose front face is several acres of Delaware Riverfront. The straphanger arrives via the 15 trolley, the 54 bus and the 43 bus, all of which have a loop off of their regular Richmond and Lehigh routes. The motorist pulls in only as far as the parking lot, oriented on the Richmond Street side of the parcel to maintain the riverfront's openness. The cyclist arrives on the northern and southern ends of the park via the East Coast Greenway, passing from Maine to Florida right through the Delaware River's newest park. The pedestrian comes as he or she pleases, with several points of access.

A large playground is located near the parking lot for parents who are busy. A modest, grassy amphitheater is landscaped and recessed for visitors who are anything but busy. On the wide pier one over from the Coal Dumper, a year round catering facility accommodates large parties for weddings, bar mitzvahs and Christmas parties, right on the river. Pedestrian pathways connect them all.

Who's going to pay for it? And there is the never ending question. Planning Commission executive director Alan Greenberger lauded Team 8's efforts in a face-to-face meeting (which, incidentally, was the day his boss Andy Altman dropped his London bomb -- the meeting was after Altman's announcement and just before he and Greenberger had met to discuss it), but offered some advice for cost analysis, with the wisdom accrued of years in practice: "Take all your estimates and multiply them by four. It's always more. Money is a wet blanket . . . especially in Philadelphia."

Citing several examples of riverfront projects that never got off the ground, for the sole reason of cost, he stopped to acknowledge a success story: "Bart Blatstein is an example. If he'd brought the banks his plans for the Piazza, they would've told him to turn around and go home. But he bankrolled his vision and built it."

What's so funny about the Conrail Yards? L-R: Alan Greenberger, Erica Leeds, Kyle Jones, Tom Donnelly, Rick Antoine and Trevor Booz.

Whether some wealthy visionary bankrolls a huge post-industrial park on the Delaware River -- nay, whether Conrail Shared Assets would even sell the once powerful site for such a venture -- is a matter for the future. Whether it could be expanded southward to James Anderson's former Cramp yards, or westward on the Lehigh Viaduct . . . these are even farther into the future. But for the pesky problem of dollars, there's no reason not to think it has a feasible framework.

To see Team 8's project vision, check out the 21M Powerpoint presentation HERE. (The 300 page appendix has been intentionally omitted.)

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For more on Port Richmond's industrial history on the riverfront, visit workshopoftheworld.com HERE.

For more on Cramp's shipyard and their role in American Naval might, visit globalsecurity.org HERE.

For some great aerial photos of Port Richmond at work, as always, check out the Dallin Aerial Survey Company at the Hagley Library's web site HERE -- search for "Port Richmond".

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Finally, as the credits roll, a Philly Skyline congratulations goes out to the graduates in this era of awful employment rates for new grads. Trevor's immediate plan is to go to the University of Delaware for his masters in Civil Engineering with a concentration in transportation. Tom is already working for Vitetta, whose biggest job at the moment is the Convention Center's expansion. Rick is working at CMX Engineering's Lansdale branch. Erica is already on the 9-to-5 on Market Street at the Burns Group. And Kyle will be going to Seminary full time in the fall.

–B Love