A vision taking shape along city's waterfront

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Penn's Landing Park, looking east, undera proposal by one of the four teams reviewed.

More than 1,500 people had packed the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and it was so crowded that they opened an overflow room with a televised link.

The November 2007 occasion was the public presentation of the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware, and expectations were running high. Over the previous 13 months, I had been leading a planning process for the portion of the Delaware River waterfront between Oregon and Allegheny Avenues and from the river to Interstate 95.

This 1,145-acre stretch of postindustrial land (nearly the size of Center City) was under siege by development pressures, including the prospect of casino gambling. The City Planning Commission had lost the public trust, as had the Penn's Landing Corp., and PennPraxis, where I was the executive director, was asked to lead the planning process by then-Mayor John Street.

We conducted a very public and transparent process against the backdrop of a mayoral election that ultimately hinged on reform. Michael Nutter was elected, and he and his team of professional city managers adopted many progressive policies (such as a sustainability agenda) and embraced a vision for the Central Delaware.

The vision was a simple one, based on best planning practices and robust civic engagement (more that 4,000 participants in more than 200 public meetings). It reflected the values of the people, which included a desire for access to the largely privatized waterfront. The final plan demonstrated that an extension of Philadelphia's human-scale street grid and network of parks and open spaces could seamlessly connect the waterfront with the city and, significantly, add value to private development.

One key to achieving this vision was platting the extension of the street grid. This meant that the city had to adopt the new streets and place them on the official city plan. The other key was confronting the elephant in the room: the future of I-95.

We knew the interstate would be rebuilt over the next 20 to 30 years, as federal highways have a built-in 50-year obsolescence. We also knew that billions of dollars would be spent to rebuild the highway, and we argued for a public conversation about its future. After all, the dense ganglia of highways between Vine Street and Washington Avenue killed any chance to connect the city with the river in an elegant and urbane fashion.

Over the past seven years, the city and the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. have successfully created a wonderful series of parks and trails along the river. From the bold Race Street Pier in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge to the new fishing pier park near Walmart, these pocket parks are just what the 60,000 residents who live within a 10-minute walk of the river need.

Still missing, though, are the bold strokes that would create unbroken urban connections between the river wards and the river.

While the waterfront corporation has plans for a $250 million, 11-acre park to cap a small portion of I-95 between Walnut and Chestnut Streets, the design leaves the larger question of the future of the interstate unanswered. Nor has progress been made in extending the street grid to the water's edge.

Cities around the world, from Seattle to Madrid and back to Boston, have been addressing the significant social, economic, environmental, and public health damage that highways have caused in our cities. They are removing or sinking their highways - or bringing them to grade - and reclaiming waterfronts and neighborhoods as they rebuild the urban environment to privilege people over cars.

These are not simple projects nor are they inexpensive. But city building is a costly, long-term endeavor that demands that we establish a human-scale vision and build it over time. After all, we still walk along William Penn's 1683 street grid.

To achieve the vision for the waterfront, we must fearlessly confront the future of I-95 and gather the will to extend the street grid. These are the values that the citizens of Philadelphia expressed in the planning process. It would be wise for the next administration to listen to them and continue the city's progress.

Harris M. Steinberg is executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University. hms88@drexel.edu