A fine park now, and even better later Schuylkill parks present, promise

This article was originally published in The Inquirer on June 25, 2004.

The construction equipment is gone, the bridge ramps are open, and Schuylkill River Park is shaping up as one of Philadelphia's great outdoor scenes. So many people crowded the Center City recreation path last weekend that the park almost needed a traffic cop. The sun, the water, the grass and trees were all perfect. 

Wait a minute. Delete "grass and trees."

Schuylkill River Park, stretching from Spring Garden to Locust Street, came into the world this spring with an asterisk attached. After a decades-long struggle to build the 1.2-mile-long asphalt path , there wasn't enough money left for grass seed, never mind trees and benches. That explains why Philadelphia's most exciting new recreational venue is currently amenity-free. 

Fortunately, that border of gray dirt and gangly weeds won't be there forever. 

The Schuylkill River Development Corp., which built the path , says it has cobbled together almost $3 million to landscape the park and extend the path four more city blocks, from its current terminus at Locust Street to the South Street Bridge. 

The current schedule, cross your fingers, calls for plants, benches and decorative paving to be installed by next June. The park extension, which includes a wooden boardwalk over the river, should be completed by the middle of 2006. 

The new landscape design, by Margie Ruddick Landscape and Synterra Partners, is a greener, more modest version of the one created by the Delta Group in the late '60s, when, believe it or not, the park was first planned. At the time, Paris was the inspiration. Schuylkill River Park was imagined as a formal promenade with trees marching two by two in linear formation. 

Not only is that scheme beyond the park's budget, it no longer suits a world in which babies start their lives in jogging strollers. Americans come to places like Schuylkill River Park to burn calories by running, biking, roller-blading or walking at a stiff pace. 

Ruddick, who has worked at Manhattan's Central Park and Battery Park City, has created a democratic landscape that provides a place for everyone. She broke the long park into four distinct outdoor rooms, each catering to its own constituency. The plantings will be low-care, self-sustaining, native varieties. 

The first room is the "Crescent. " Located at a natural cove between Cherry and Market Streets, it provides a gently sloping lawn for passive uses such as sunbathing and concerts. The "Urban Terrace," from Market south to Chestnut Street, will have a more formal granite surface furnished with benches and planters. At Walnut Street, Ruddick takes advantage of an opening in the bulkhead to create "Water World," a tidal pool edged with willows and reeds, but still suitable for launching a kayak. Eventually, a dock will be built there. (Riverfront docks are also planned at Bartram's Garden and the Waterworks. )

For the last room, "Ecology Walk," Ruddick plans to leave in place the "Huck Finn wilderness" of black locust, poplar and alder that has grown up on the neglected bank between Locust and South Streets. Because the land is so narrow, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will divert the path onto a boardwalk that hangs over the water. 

As good as this design looks, there is no provision yet for a cafe, or for bike and canoe rentals. Those modest services are also necessary to cater to a diverse crowd. 

In fact, the park is still trying to resolve the more basic problems of maintenance and access. The river park, an extension of the Kelly Drive path , is owned by Fairmount Park and the city. Yet, remarkably, neither has been willing so far to assume the long-term responsibility for maintaining the area. For the moment, the Center City District is collecting trash, and Fairmount Park is doing some minimal groundskeeping.  

That arrangement can't last forever. The Schuylkill development corporation is desperately trying to find a regular source of money to pay its maintenance bills. Keeping the park clean, functional and graffiti-free will cost an estimated $170,000 a year. 

The park appears to be making more headway in negotiating a settlement with the CSX railroad, which has threatened to block access to the park at its Locust and Race Street grade crossings. Mayor Street, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, and a group called Free Schuylkill River Park have been pressuring the railroad to relent. 

Because the park's development has been so ad hoc, another problem is looming: skateboarders. A planned skateboard ramp at Spring Garden Street is meant to compensate skateboarders for their banishment from LOVE Park, but the riverfront location has the same drawbacks of that granite heaven. 

Street banned skateboarding in LOVE Park because of complaints that the activity was terrorizing the lunchtime crowd. But once skateboarders join the mix at the river park, I predict we'll hear the same refrain. It would have been better to have left LOVE Park to the skateboarders and spent some money to make its City Hall companion, Dilworth Plaza, a safe haven for the lunch crowd. 

Still, Street's growing interest in the river park is an encouraging sign. He has made three recent visits, including a meeting with residents about the railroad crossings. Last Friday, he took a spin on a motorboat with other officials to get the water view. If the mayor lets City Hall know that the river park is a top priority, its problems could be as good as over. 

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isaffron@phillynews.com