Peace Corps dam builder-turned-Delaware River development overseer retires on a high note

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, Tom Corcoran helped oversee the construction of earthen dams to expose the fertile soil beneath the inlets of Lake Chad, preparing those grounds for wheat farming.

Now, decades later, Corcoran has bid farewell to a career on another body of water — the Delaware River — after prepping its Camden and Philadelphia waterfronts for massive development projects.

Corcoran, 73, retired from his post as head of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. this summer after eight years with the city-affiliated nonprofit that guides development along a swath of central Philadelphia’s eastern riverfront. His work there followed 25 years at the Cooper’s Ferry Development Association, the DRWC’s Camden counterpart.

It’s now up to his successors on both sides of the river to continue the work set in motion, most notably the redevelopment of the Penn’s Landing waterfront site, which has vexed developers and planners for decades.

Plans call for capping a portion of I-95 between Chestnut and Walnut Streets with a four-acre park that slopes down to the river at Penn’s Landing. One of Corcoran’s final acts as DRWC chief was to announce that funding commitments had been secured for completing the project, which would reconnect Center City with its waterfront.

“My goal —  and I wasn’t sure I was going to get there — was to get the project’s financial commitments in place before I left, and that’s what we were able to do,” he said on the terrace of the Hilton hotel at Penn’s Landing, near the area that is set to be transformed. “That was a very good feeling, to be able to leave on that note.”

Corcoran, a Chicago native, came to Philadelphia to earn a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School after seven years in the Peace Corps.

With his Wharton degree, Corcoran began an eight-year stint with the City of Camden, eventually becoming the municipality’s business administrator. He left city government in 1983 to lead the nonprofit Cooper’s Ferry association, which was formed to manage 75 acres of riverfront land.

Under his watch, Cooper’s Ferry saw the development of the New Jersey State Aquarium (now the Adventure Aquarium), the performing-arts venue now known as BB&T Pavilion, and the One Port Center office building, among other construction projects and public amenities.

In 2009, Corcoran hopped across the Delaware River to lead the newly formed DRWC, first overseeing development of a master plan for the waterfront zone between Allegheny Avenue in Port Richmond and Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia, then helping to carry out projects consistent with that document.

Corcoran’s tenure at the DRWC included development of public spaces such as the Race Street and Washington Avenue Piers and the start of a 3.3-mile bike-and-walking trail between Fishtown and the big-box shopping district of South Columbus Boulevard. Other initiatives have included the Spruce Street Harbor Park with its food stands, hammocks, and lawn games.

Throughout his time at the DRWC, Corcoran said, he was guided by a principal of racking up modest, achievable wins in areas flanking Penn’s Landing, rather than attempting the wholesale redevelopment of the dated waterfront district itself, as others have attempted.

“Instead of swinging for the fences, we decided we would hit singles and doubles and bunts and sacrifices, steal bases, and do whatever we could,” he said. “Eventually, we thought, we’d always get back to the center.”

Now they’re getting there.

The years since Corcoran’s departure from Cooper’s Ferry have brought the arrival of a 76ers training facility on Front Street, as well as the start of developer Liberty Property Trust’s $1 billion plan for offices, housing, and hotel accommodations over 26 acres, although he concedes that state tax incentives played a big role in encouraging that activity.

On the Philadelphia side, meanwhile, the DRWC-led landscaped public spaces and seasonal attractions have played a role in attracting private development, such as the One Water Street apartment building and FringeArts theater complex near Race Street Pier.

Those amenities — and the plans for the highway-capping Penn’s Landing park — were cited by New York’s Durst Organization as a reason for its acquisition of an assemblage of piers north of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge for eventual development into an apartment complex.

Liberty Property Trust chief executive William Hankowsky, who had worked with Corcoran in Camden city government and who now sits on the DRWC’s board of directors, attributed Corcoran’s successes to patience and humility.

“He’s not trying to walk in a room and own the room,” Hankowsky said. “He’s trying to walk in the room and see how he can build a consensus to move the mission forward among various constituencies.”

For Corcoran, Hankowsky said, “the mission is more important than the person.”

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