New plan for Penn's Landing more realistic

An artist's rendering of the new Penn's Landing. (KieranTimberlake, Brooklyn Digital)

The sizzle factor in the new plan for the central Delaware waterfront, which was given its formal debut Monday, is that — unlike any grand scheme that’s gone before — this plan to reconnect Philadelphians to the river could become a reality.

In this case, real life beats any previous pipe dreams that might have been shaped more by visions of a transplanted South Beach, or a Disney theme park.

The master plan by the waterfront agency that Mayor Nutter launched — the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., under the direction of Thomas P. Corcoran, a veteran of the Camden waterfront renaissance — aspires to the promise of a thriving, pedestrian-friendly waterfront.

It offers a blueprint that would move away from big-box retail development, and wisely de-emphasizes casinos on the river. Instead, government infrastructure investments and planning efforts would be aimed at shifting gears toward encouraging new low- and mid-rise neighborhoods, dotted with 10 parks never more than a short walk away.

That’s an important triumph over decades of poor planning by developers fixated on building large projects that provide open space, but only as part of gated communities that couldn’t possibly enliven the waterfront.

Even though the new plan sounds a retreat on the idea of covering I-95, it suggests other ways to cope with the unsightly gash that long has stood as a barrier to reaching the river.

Bringing people to live on the waterfront is a major element of that strategy, since their neighborhoods inevitably will strengthen the many links to existing neighborhoods nearby — reachable under the highway’s elevated sections.

Beyond that, the proposal to slightly widen the highway cover adjacent to Penn’s Landing would create the pedestrian gateway that’s now missing. It would also have the added benefit of condemning the ugly scissor ramps at Penn’s Landing.

Will it all work? Best guess: Yes, and for several key reasons.

First and foremost, the planned waterfront builds on what already works best in the city — the rich mix of neighborhoods and Fairmount Park splendors.

Also, the plan focuses on realistic development staged to occur over several decades. But it smartly targets efforts to three city-owned sites — starting with the Penn’s Landing boat basin, and then Festival Pier — where the reborn waterfront could become a tangible concept sooner.

Finally, the plan could work because it’s so well grounded in what Philadelphians themselves already have said they hoped to see on the waterfront.

Through a groundbreaking months-long process of public deliberation launched by Nutter’s predecessor, John F. Street, and embraced by the mayor, all manner of city stakeholders sketched out a vision for the nearly seven-mile stretch of waterfront that looks remarkably like this master plan.

In faithfully hewing to vision and staying grounded in reality, Corcoran’s agency has done the city an enormous service.