Friday, June 10, 2005

"Fun" With the Delaware Riverfront

The Delaware River made the settlement of Philadelphia possible. In the 17th Century, William Penn and his cohorts spent no shortage of time trying to pick just the right location for what Penn hoped would be a city of freestanding homes and businesses, and plenty of space for residents to enjoy.

For Penn, the Delaware was a tool, a means of transportation. It remained a tool up through the mid-20th Century, as industry lined its shores. Today, the shores of this river demand rethought and reuse. While most Philadelphians today enjoy the Schuylkill's waterfront paths and beauty - the Delaware is a river that most people in the area get to know most often from the deck of a bridge on their way to New Jersey and back.

It seems it is finally time to ensure Philadelphians build a real relationship with the great Delaware River. Yet, as is so often the case, the good intentions of the city's leaders to attract new investment could mean little space will be left to public uses on the riverfront.

If you have looked at Philadelphia newspapers of late, you have no doubt seen the coverage of what seems to be promising new residential development plans for sites near the Tacony and Bridesburg sections of the city. New, trendy development in Northeast Philadelphia? Yes, and you can bet it will become reality.

Inga Saffron reports in the 10 June Inquirer, that a 50-foot wide stretch of land will be left to public uses along the Delaware waterfront through Northeast Philadelphia, no matter what developments take place along it. This space could become a path, possibly some kind of linear park that would be a more modern version of the beloved Kelly Drive frontage on the Schuylkill. Yet 50-feet is hardly a massive width for grand landscaping ideas. You won't find much space in 50-feet for parks for recreational uses like sports or picknicking.

Saffron and many others highlight the issue that because the City of Philadelphia is so eager to encourage new home development, the city may not be taking care to ensure the new riverfront developments are designed with long-term attractiveness and functionality in mind. This may be so, and the city should take care to ensure this new development meets several key needs.

One major need, not an idea that is lost on any city planner or critic, is that all new riverfront development must have connections to the existing neighborhoods in the Northeast that sit slightly offshore from the river. For example, Bridesburg, long isolated as I-95 cuts it off from Frankford and industrial development hides it from the Delaware, should most definitely be connected to any new riverfront development nearby. Plans call for some 2,000 homes to be built in the future on the river near Bridesburg. The community has always been a stable and spotless section of the city evocative of what many parts of PHiladelphia looked like before deindustrialization and capital flight.

In a slightly different vein, Tacony, just a few miles northeast of Bridesburg, sits awaiting what could be a potentially great future. This community of middle and working-class Philadelphians has been largely Irish and Italian, and now African Americans and Hispanics are calling the area home in small numbers. There have been growing pains for some long-timers as diversity has realized itself there, but land values are up - following a citywide trend. Near Tacony, some 500 townhomes are envisioned and likely to soon be built along the Delaware on the site of the old Tacony Army warehouse. This new development, too, must find a way to link with the venerable and established Tacony long lingering along Torresdale or Tyson Avenues.

So often, new development in major cities turns its back on the very residents that made the community a great place in which to live. It is possible in many city neighborhoods that have long been stable and recently gained new, trendy housing, for newcomers to have little to do with established residents and vice versa. It is a sad situation that creates needless division and mistrust in communities that could soar if there were unity between classes and ethnicities.

The city owes the residents of existing sections of Bridesburg and Tacony assurance their neighborhoods are part of, not distinct from, new residential development on the Delaware that could send area home values ever higher. There are too many people in these solid neighborhoods that have worked too hard to keep them safe, clean and functional to be ignored. Often this work has been in spite of high taxes, and a city government that often does not remember how valuable the contributions of Northeast Philadelphians are to the city's well-being.

This residential growth along the Delaware is a very fine thing for the city, make no mistake. But before we all start taking jogs up the Delaware on that new 50-foot path and oohing and aahing at new homes along the water, let us stop for a moment and push to let city leaders know that a great city will only become greater if what exists today is joined with what may come tomorrow.


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