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Waterfront Dreams

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By Jacob Lambert

On a recent sunny weekday, I came up with a novel idea: I'd take my son to Penn's Landing.  He's 14 months old, and the thought of what he'd see there for the first time--boats, gulls, the Ben Franklin Bridge--made me smile. Once outside, Conor strapped to my chest for the half-hour walk, we found the sky a rich blue, the air warm, the sun bright.  All in all, a good day for a river.

The fact that my idea--a simple visit to Penn's Landing--was so unusual testifies to decades of failure by Philadelphia city planners: on a gorgeous spring day, the waterfront should have been an obvious, magnetic choice--as it is for residents of Seattle, Baltimore, or San Antonio.  Instead, it would serve as a decent change of pace, a relief from our routine.  Once we left the river later that day, we probably wouldn't return for weeks, maybe months. 

Like many residents, architects, and editorial boards, I've long complained about Penn's Landing, denigrated it as an opportunity wasted.  When you lay it all out, that waste seems practically intentional: Columbus Boulevard (nee Delaware Avenue) cleaves it from the rest of the city; the Hyatt blots out the sky.  The Great Plaza is neither great nor really a plaza; it's a baffling collection of rice paddy staircases.  The Independence Seaport Museum, bless its lil' heart, sits against the shore like a lost, faded dinghy.  An assortment of fenced-off lots, sidewalks to nowhere, and haphazard kiosks confuses the eye.  And casinos, of course, are on the way.  Taken together, these things add up to an aesthetic disaster.  In the city's recreational imagination, Penn's Landing barely exists.

But it was still there when Conor and I arrived around one o'clock; unsurprisingly, we didn't have much company.  There were a few strolling couples, some moms pushing carriages, a troop of chattering Scouts.  A young family swarmed around a bench; a man sunned himself, eyes closed.  And that was pretty much it.  I chose from a selection of empty benches and looked out at the brownish, heavy Delaware.  Conor sat on my lap, looking at the water with medium interest; a nearby sparrow was far more exciting.  He drank milk from a bottle and we sat contentedly, the heat, water, and sky forming a syrupy calm.  I looked across to Campbell's Field, making a note, as I always do, that this year I'll get to a game.  The Battleship New Jersey brought to mind an elementary-school version of my son, obsessed, as I was at that age, with ships, planes and cartoon war.  A Ducks boat struggled past, the tourists within issuing their plangent, idiotic toots.

After a while, the bottle was drained and Conor grew squirmy.  He wanted to beat it, so I obliged--packing things up, strapping him in, and shuffling back towards the city.  Were he not with me, I thought as I walked, I could've sat there for hours, maybe with a book or a magazine.  The thought surprised me.  This was Penn's Landing I was mooning over, not Clark Park or Rittenhouse Square.  Penn's Landing isn't supposed to please anyone. 

That Penn's Landing --the one that makes people happy--exists in an alternate universe, for now living as a design on a PennPraxis sketchpad.  First floated in 2003, the University of Pennsylvania design group's plan would be transformative: it would extend east-west streets to the water, carve out parks and trails, restore river habitat.  In 2008, Mayor Nutter accepted the vision as part of his official agenda, calling it a "'carpe diem' moment."  But as the economy has dwindled and priorities have changed, the diem seems less and less likely to be carped. The plan, once merely complex and hugely expensive, now feels like half-remembered drunk talk.

As it turns out, the planners say the project was never intended to be a short-, or even medium-term proposition.  Its portrayal by local media--with excited reports and Edenic computer renderings--has lent a feeling that the new Penn's Landing will arrive, if not soon, at least in our lifetimes.  But PennPraxis intentionally never announced a timetable, or even a cost estimate, because, according to the group's Harris Steinberg, "we didn't want to scare people off."  From working towards necessary zoning changes to this summer's installation of a Race Street park, each project phase is being completed in its own due time.  The whole thing, Steinberg says, might be done in "50 to 100 years," adding that "Ben Franklin Parkway is 100 years old, and it's still being built out... [Penn's Landing] is going to take a long time."

Too long for me to be there when it is fully transformed; perhaps too long even for Conor.

The odds are that our eastern shoreline will stay as it is for decades to come.  It will remain a jumble of concrete and bad sightlines, of shuttered food stands and empty wood benches.  We'll still have to dodge traffic to get to it, and once there, there won't be much to do.  But these things don't make it valueless.  As I learned from my walk with Conor, the waterfront is still capable of quiet restoration, and for all its flaws is well worth the trip.  Instead of waiting for PennPraxis' Sims-like renderings to spring to life, we should take advantage of the river's simple charms now.  It may not feature seven miles of trails or thickets of native grass. But it does have open sky and flowing water--two things that will never be improved upon.

So if you get a chance, take a walk down there, have a seat on a bench.  Bring something to read.  When you're sitting in the sun, calmed by the wide, slow river, you'll forget what it was you thought the place needed.

 

Jacob Lambert is a writer who lives in South Philadelphia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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