On the Waterfront: A Foundation Helps a City Reconnect to Its River

 Photo: Deleware river waterfront corporation

Photo: Deleware river waterfront corporation

The construction of I-95 through the heart of Philadelphia is a textbook example of how big mid-century highway projects wreaked havoc on the fabrics of city neighborhoods. 

When the project took form in the late 1950s, a time when planners overwhelmingly prioritized cars and highways, many in the city fought it. Its construction required hundreds of historic houses in one working-class neighborhood to be demolished, despite resident protest, and created a physical barrier between the city and its waterfront.  

Like many other cities, Philly’s leaders have been trying to correct their auto-centric sins of the past. One solution that has been in the works for decades is a plan to drop a big park on top of a stretch of that multi-lane highway. Price tag: $225 million. 

Of course, that’s a lot cheaper than my fair city of Boston’s infamous $15 billion course correction, aka The Big Dig, which buried our own downtown highway and covered it partially in greenways. But it’s still a lot of money. 

And now, officials are getting very close to covering the bill, with the city and state roughly splitting $200 million of the cost, plus a just-announced $15 million commitment from the William Penn Foundation. That leaves just $10 million to be raised. 

The project will create an 11-acre park that caps the highway, becoming an esplanade that reconnects Center City to the Delaware River, while opening up other downtown development opportunities. 

It’s a big parks project, and Penn’s is a big parks grant, even though it's kind of overshadowed by both the major government funding involved, and Penn’s larger work in the region.

We’ve been consistently interested in this foundation’s public spaces funding, whether that’s the circuit of trails it supports, or its recent $100 million commitment to Rebuild Philadelphia, a citywide parks and public spaces overhaul driven by Mayor Jim Kenney.

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We were especially keen on that latter commitment, which is impressive in both its huge amount, and the fact that it will span the city, with an emphasis on distressed neighborhoods beyond the highly prosperous Center City. The funding is also a supplement to a city-driven process, and not the other way around, which can be problematic. 

This latest waterfront award is a little different, in that it boosts downtown with a scenic, walkable centerpiece. The city anticipates the park will trigger $1.6 billion in economic returns. The mayor maintains, however, that the downtown park is a component of his equity agenda and Rebuild, not a counterpoint, according to PlanPhilly

Striking the balance between making cities more desirable for development and making sure they're affordable and don’t force out current residents is a central challenge in our current golden age of parks philanthropy. And it’s one city leaders have got to figure out. 

From New York to Atlanta to Houston, stunning city parks projects backed by philanthropy have worked wonders in revitalizing neighborhoods, but they're also contributing factors to gentrification. Just ask longtime residents of West Chelsea who live near the High Line in Manhattan—if you can find any. In terms of making a park a powerful tool for a city, with limited downsides, covering a misguided highway with a beautiful green space is a clever approach. Philadelphia is also undertaking some creative efforts to use parks as forces for equity.

But as cities make these huge infrastructure changes in coming years, they need to be wary of repeating similar inequity-driving mistakes of urban renewal, albeit in much prettier form. 

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