A long time coming: Center City may finally reach the river

It has been a long time coming, but Philadelphia may finally see I-95 capped with a pocket park of green, connecting its bustling center with the banks of the Delaware.

Mayor Kenney, in his second-year budget,  is proposing to spend $90 million toward covering I-95  between Walnut and Chestnut Streets with an elevated 11-acre swath that would also cross Front Street and Columbus Boulevard, ending at the Delaware riverfront.

The total cost for the project is expected to be $225 million, with $100 million coming from the state and the William Penn Foundation contributing several million dollars.

“We’re getting a large opening space, we’re covering a highway that while functional is an eyesore," Kenney said Tuesday. "We’re going to be able to access the river directly, and I think that’s going to be great for the businesses in Old City and Society Hill and the historic area, and it’s going to allow families in North and South and West Philadelphia to lay on the lawn and see the river and enjoy the sites.”

The $90 million capital spending plan needs to be approved by City Council. Even if approved, the project is still a long way from completion. The soonest a shovel would hit the ground is likely 2020, and from there it would be a three-year construction project, according to the city and state officials. 

The idea to reconnect Center City to the waterfront has been in discussion since the Street administration.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Councilman Mark Squilla, who represents the area. 

The Nutter administration laid the groundwork for the waterfront park project that is now on deck.

It had gotten as far as having the Planning Commission approve a plan for the waterfront that included the green-space cap and hiring a landscape architecture firm to design the space.

From there, it was all about getting the funding pieces together.

“It’s simply that these things take a while," said Alan Greenberger, who was the city’s deputy mayor of planning and development in the Nutter administration. "We were having discussions with PennDot for some time. We were also having conversations with foundations. But really, it takes time.”

Greenberger added that he was “thrilled” that Kenney pursued the plan. 

“The mayor is doing exactly the right thing,” Greenberger said. “When this gets done, people will be stunned at how transformative this is.”

Anne Fadullon, the city’s director of planning and development, said that when she and Kenney came into office in January 2015, the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC) began pushing the new administration on the plan.

“We saw it as an exciting opportunity,” Fadullon said.

Kenney, having grown up in South Philadelphia near the Delaware River, was supportive of the idea.

Conversations with the state about funding became more serious last year when the Department of Transportation contributed $10 million for an engineering study of the site where the park would go, Squilla said.

This year, the Wolf administration is proposing to allocate $100 million over six years from the state’s capital budget to the city’s waterfront project. Elaine Elbich, PennDot portfolio manager for I-95, said the department saw the waterfront plan as a piece to its larger plan to rehabilitate I-95.

Elbich said PennDot’s planning and engineering studies for the waterfront portion will take about two years to complete. Then the preliminary engineering phase would come, and if all goes according to plan, construction would start in 2020.  

Part of the overall plan will be to move the Penn's Landing ice skating rink to the new green cap, as well as to improve the South Street bridge and the trail along the riverfront, Fadullon said. The 11-acre public space is expected to include more than seven acres of green space. 

“You stand at Front and Chestnut and you look toward the river and what you see is concrete,” Kenney said Tuesday. “If you stand at Front and Chestnut hopefully five to six years from now, you’ll see the river and you’ll see a vast expanse of green space that people can come to with families and picnic and enjoy the open space.”

City officials also expect that the public investment will spur private development along the waterfront.

“We have a lot of interest in land in and around the Delaware, along with the building of the trail along the river, the big success of Spruce Harbor Park,” Squilla said. “Just to see when you activate anything near the water, how that really attracts the people.”