Updated: Thursday, December 14, 2017, 6:09 AM
Can it really be just six years since Philadelphia completed a master plan for the central Delaware waterfront? In that brief span, the stretch between Pennsport and Port Richmond has come alive with new parks, trails, and attractions. It’s hard to imagine summer in Philadelphia without the midway at Spruce Harbor Park, yoga at the Race Street pier, or lazily watching the tugboats glide past Pier 53.
But move inland from the water’s edge, to the road that separates Philadelphia from the river of its birth, and conditions remain largely unchanged. Although a few residential developments, like One Water Street, have established tentative connections to Columbus Boulevard, the six-lane road is still dominated by big-box retail, strip malls, and gas stations encircled by vast asphalt lots. Sidewalks, if they exist at all, are so narrow they are nearly useless.
The master plan, which evolved out of a decade of public conversations, promised to set the Delaware waterfront on a different course. Architects’ renderings showed a slimmed-down, lushly planted Columbus Boulevard, lined with urbane apartments that front generous sidewalks. The city even adopted a special zoning overlay that forbids autocentric uses. Yet for all the plan’s ambition, there has been little follow-up in the form of traffic-calming infrastructure that might tame the chaotic highway.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that the latest development proposal is exactly what the master plan was intended to discourage: a gas station and Wawa convenience store. Known as a “Super Wawa,” the canopied gas station would take over the crucial southeast corner of Dickinson Street, further reducing the city’s chances of transforming Columbus Boulevard into a walkable street.
At 18 acres, the site is big enough to make anything possible. Many know it as the Foxwoods site, for the casino that was once planned there. The property later reverted to its former owner, Bart Blatstein, who made a fortune building strip malls on Columbus Boulevard after the city’s port began shifting south in the late ’80s. Even though Philadelphia and the adjacent rowhouse neighborhoods have changed dramatically in the ensuing quarter-century, Blatstein insists on sticking to his old script.
His proposal would treat the magnificently overgrown parcel like a generic slab of highway real estate. He has carved the large block into scattered “pad” sites, sized for the needs of various retail chains. Though Blatstein promises to build rowhouses near the river, his proposal essentially dumps it there in the most unappealing way, right next to the trash and loading docks of one of the pad sites. You’re left with the impression that Blatstein just wants to snag a couple of high-rent chains and call it a day.
One of the pads, at the northern end of the site, near Reed Street, is already being prepped for a Lidl supermarket. Because the overlay requires new construction to mimic traditional urban street design, the Lidl store will come out to the sidewalk. But there is no indication the grocery will actually function like a traditional city building.
Even though Blatstein describes the project as a “mixed-use development,” he has done nothing to integrate the retail and residential parts of his project. The one-story supermarket will stand alone, surrounded by a sea of parking, and its sidewalk remains a stingy ribbon of concrete. Lidl adheres to the principles of the waterfront overlay without embracing its spirit.
You can see the same unfortunate result a block away, at Tasker, where AAA recently completed a repair garage. The office portion adheres to the basic tenets of good urbanism, with its front door opening onto the corner. Yet AAA treats the sidewalk leading to the door as an afterthought, despite having plenty of room to build a wider pathway.
The poor design compounds the unfortunate reality of AAA’s presence. The city might not have the money to reconfigure Columbus Boulevard according to the image in the master plan, but it certainly has the tools to push developers like AAA to do better.
Will the city stand up to Blatstein? Technically, his gas station proposal should be a nonstarter, because autocentric uses are prohibited by the waterfront overlay. But the zoning board, which is scheduled to review the project in January, has been known to overlook the overlay’s requirements. Joseph A. Forkin, who runs the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., told me he intends to personally testify against the proposal.
Blatstein says he will argue that his project should be approved because it is an improvement over the previous generation of autocentric developments. If it doesn’t look more like a Center City building, well, that is the fault of the city, he insists. “You can sugarcoat it all you want,” Blatstein says, “but Columbus Boulevard is still a six-lane highway.”
He’s right, up to a point. The waterfront corporation has concentrated most of its efforts over the last six years on the river, not the road. What street work it has completed has focused on upgrades to the Race and Spring Garden Street “upland connectors,” which link Center City to the waterfront. Once dark and forbidding, the stretches that run under I-95 have been transformed with decorative lighting and fresh sidewalks. Next in line for an overhaul is the Washington Avenue intersection.
Though progress has been slow on Columbus Boulevard, Blatstein is wrong to blame the road for his highway-style design. The Dickinson Street intersection is actually one of the more urban nodes. The two buildings on the north and southwest corners (which include the Riverview Theater, developed by Blatstein), are both urban forms, even if their facades aren’t particularly welcoming. It’s really just a short walk from the boulevard to Front Street (albeit, under I-95), where a vibrant rowhouse development has just been finished. New corner bump-outs narrow the crossing and give Front Street a nice residential feel. This elevated portion of the interstate feels like much less of a barrier than the submerged section in Center City does.
With the right kind of development, the Columbus and Dickinson intersection could become the southern equivalent of Columbus and Race. Because it is relatively easy to walk to the river along Race Street, that intersection has evolved into a nexus of activity. In the six years since the master plan was adopted, the Fringe Theater, Race Street Pier Park, and One Water Street have all congregated there. By summer, the Delaware waterfront corporation expects to open art studios and a public market nearby in the Cherry Street Pier.
Blatstein might not see it, but the Dickinson intersection also could host a similar array of activities. But it will never realize its potential if another gas station colonizes the corner. The only way to create change on the waterfront is to start changing the way we build.