How Race Street Pier Is Set to Redefine Philadelphia's Riverfront

Johanna Hoffman's picture

Philadelphia's waterfront is about to get a new face. Race Street Pier, set to open May 11th of this week, is more than just a park. Tucked under the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge, the pier juts over 500 feet into the brown waters of the Delaware, providing park-goers with a setting both intimate and dramatic in which to re-engage with the one of the most storied riverfronts in the country.

While its aims are grand, the park's design is relatively simple. The northern side of the 80 foot wide pier is elevated to serve as a tree-lined promenade, giving city residents and tourists views up and down the river that stretch for miles. Shrubs and other textured plantings create space on the pier's lower, southern side for more passive recreation. "It's about dramatizing the theater of being able to come out into the space of river," said James Corner of Field Operations -- the NYC-based firm responsible for the park's design -- at the park's 2009 groundbreaking ceremony.

True to Corner's words, the site doesn't lack for drama. Situated at the apex of the I-95 highway and the Ben Franklin Bridge, Race Street Pier is a place where park-goers are as immersed in the roar of traffic as they are in river views. 

Which is why Philadelphia's newest public park is as much educational tool as it is recreational experience. When people view the Delaware from such a close vantage point, they get a feel for the force and flow of the river, a system that has shaped the landscape of Philadelphia for millennia. That the sight, sounds and smells of urban life surround Race Street Pier sends the subliminal message that the two – riverside and city – are intrinsically connected. 

Creating such a place wasn't easy. When it opens on Wednesday, Race Street Pier will be the first completed project of the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware, one of the most civically engaged and politically charged planning processes in recent history. When initial planning began over five years ago, Philadelphia's seven-mile long riverfront area was a fractured landscape. It was a time of easy money and development speculation, and pressures to turn the postindustrial parcels lining the Delaware river into more big-box development and highway design were everywhere. At the time, there was no formal riverfront development commission to lead development and Philadelphia's aged zoning code allowed political pressures to invade the planning process. It took multiple outside consulting firms, intense media coverage, philanthropic support, and the participation of more than four thousand Philadelphians to turn things around. 

The degree to which Race Street Pier re-connects Philadelphia with the river of its birth is proof that things have changed. Even the park's name – switched from the original Pier 11 to Race Street – is used to reinforce the relationship between the riverfront pier and the rest of the city grid. Even with such efforts, however, the site is hard to find. Cut off from much of the city by the I-95, Race Street Pier retains the isolated quality characteristic of Philadelphia's waterfront since the highway was built in the 1960s. 

The opening of the park is an important step in bridging that divide. Says Jesse Barns of South Philadelphia, "I like that it gets us out on the water." While other, already developed riverfront areas provide ample recreational space, none jut into the drama of the Delaware like Race Street Pier. In this park, being on the water is what it's all about.

Johanna Hoffman is a freelance writer and environmental planning student at UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design.

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