Developing the banks of the Schuylkill River

Next time you look across the Schuylkill River at the Fairmount Waterworks, observe the three faces on the lower buildings. Two small half-circle windows form the eyes, and larger semi-circular brick panels outline the mouths. Whether you are motoring on the Expressway or Martin Luther King Drive or traveling on the pathway, note the faces, happier when the water level is high than when it’s low.

These days, they’re happy, marking the exuberance of the Schuylkill Banks enhancements. While Schuylkill means hidden, no one is hiding anything any longer. Schuylkill River Development Corporation (SRDC) is leading the $2.5 billion dollar effort – of which private investors will be coughing up a staggering $2.4 billion – to guide and promote short- and long-term improvement of Schuylkill Banks, a linear park along the tidal river from the Fairmount Dam to the Delaware River. Having integrated award-winning plans by the renowned firms of EDAW and Sasaki Associates, SRDC is concentrating on enriching this valuable real estate for the benefit of local, regional and statewide audiences. And, of course, tourists. 

Long ago lush green banks attracted Dutch explorers and inspired savvy municipal minds to align development along the river’s “verdant edge.” After centuries of industrial development, then decline, though, the view is more verdigris than verdure, more sewage than sedges, more vagrants than verbena. Through the efforts of SRDC, latter-day explorers with walking shoes, wheels and watercraft are increasingly able to appreciate the light glinting off the water. 

Laura is lazing on the riverbank near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to which she bicycled with her husband, Gomez, from their South Philadelphia home. “He’s fishing. I bring lunch. For dinner we’ll eat that catfish,” the one lying on the dirt, gasping for breath. “He’ll take the skin off, and we’ll fry it. I’ve never eaten catfish.”

The Schuylkill Banks trail, from Kelly Drive to Locust Street, is the heart of the restoration and largely complete. In the 1960s, John Collins, a landscape architect with the Delta Group, laid out a grand esplanade and a seawall along the banks. “But by the time construction funds arrived, the public’s appetite for boulevard-sized banks had diminished,” says Margie Ruddick, ASLA, whom SRDC commissioned in 2002 to design the trail. Then an independent landscape designer, now a partner at WRT, Ruddick took Collins’ continuous, consistent pathway and interwove “more places to hang out.” 

Walking south from the Art Museum, she points to “A long convex crescent of shore, which we are treating as a lawn, with a few overlooks and benches. Next is the gallery, a space that is tighter and more urban. The gallery’s scale calls for more paving and more bosques of trees. The central area of the trail, closest to Center City buildings, ramps down from Chestnut Street. We like to think of it as the city’s terrace, the living room, much more urban, and then the feeling gets softer again. We’ve moved several big rocks from elsewhere on the site, using them as seating. We tried to humanize the experience of heavy infrastructure along the waterfront.” Try it. You’ll like it.

“The trail is a direct, elegant walkway that many people now use to commute,” says Anthony Sorrentino, executive director of public affairs for the University of Pennsylvania and a city planner. “This amenity isn’t like an orchestra or art galleries or a restaurant. It’s an attractive, well managed, well designed waterfront. It used to be filled with nefarious activity, but it’s been reclaimed. The pubic response has been overwhelming.” Volunteers count about 14,000 user trips per week between April and November.

Joseph Syrnick, a civil engineer, president and CEO of SRDC, says, “I hope nothing we are proposing is environmentally negative. I hope it’s all environmentally positive. Ten years ago, 15 years ago, much of the land along the Schuylkill was no-man’s land, wooded with scrubby underbrush, and now it’s been transformed into a greenway and trail. The remediation of the brown fields and contamination is more or less done.

“Almost all of this area used to have loading docks and creosoted timber relieving platforms, which had all rotted. The B&O Railroad yard once had 20 tracks along what is now Schuylkill Banks. Old photos show stuff just dripping from train engines. I believe you can now lie on your picnic blanket where spills once were.”

“I walk to work along this trail, often with my dog,” says Peggy, a long-time resident of the Fitler Square neighborhood. “We both love to see fish jumping. I hope to teach fly-fishing to inner-city kids along the Schuylkill Banks.” 

SRDC, responsible for segments on both sides of the Schuylkill, receives capital funding mostly from federal, state and city grants, plus substantial sums from the William Penn Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts. Board members’ organizations – especially Penn; Drexel University; the City of Philadelphia; Brandywine Realty Trust; Sunoco and SCA North America, a Swedish paper company with offices at the Cira Centre – donate operating funds.

“Many of the projects we do ourselves,” Syrnick says. “We want to make all the river crossings more architecturally appealing. Spruce them up. We want to make the river less of a barrier.” He’s also working with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which offered better lighting and wider sidewalks on the Kennedy Boulevard bridge. “We could soon have five new bridges with better pedestrian amenities. The bridges – Kennedy, Market, Chestnut, Walnut and South Street – already have access to the trail, though we hope for better access and notification that the trail exists.” 

Martin, of Cherry Hill, walks his bicycle over the rails and rattling stones at Locust Street, reaching up on the chain-link fence for a free doggy-poop bag for Siegfried. “We’re here every weekend.”

Penn bought the U.S. Postal Service’s 24-acre industrial zone – roughly 18 football fields. As parking, performing-arts and childcare facilities rise on the site, dandelions and Dos Equis bottles face elimination. Sorrentino is closely involved with Penn’s huge commitment to the Schuylkill, often representing the school’s president at SRDC meetings

“Penn has wanted to expand eastward since the 1960s,” he says. “By acquiring this gargantuan parcel of land and developing it appropriately, Penn makes it easier for people to cross the barriers of the Schuylkill River and the Schuylkill Expressway.” The university’s master plan, created by Sasaki, proposes a pedestrian bridge across the river, beginning at the north side of Franklin Field. From Sorrentino’s perspective, SRDC complements Penn’s endeavors.

A man who puts his money where his fancy is, Gerard Sweeney is president and CEO of Brandywine Realty Trust, which developed Cesar Pelli’s towering Cira Centre at 30th Street. He also chairs the SRDC board. “We want Schuylkill Banks to create future memories,” he says. “Any time you undertake a development, you wonder about its neighborhood. We considered the Schuylkill River the Cira Centre’s front door. “Two thousand people work in the Cira Centre, a number of whom use the trail to jog, sit or power-walk at lunch. Some travel to work on that path. I see Schuylkill Banks as part of the amenity package of our building.”

Residential real estate enjoys the enhancements, too: The westernmost Center City neighborhood has renamed itself Schuylkill Banks. Soon you’ll hear “I’m renting in Schuylkill Banks” or “Meet me in Schuylkill Banks.” When that happens, says Sorrentino, you reach the Malcolm Gladwell tipping point.

Remarkably Schuylkill Banks has engendered no controversy. Some tantrums and delays, perhaps, as a few entities clutched turf, but nobody has spurned the upgrades. In April CSX Transportation caved, agreeing, finally, to “facilitate construction” of a pedestrian overpass of its rails along the eastern bank near Spruce Street and to stop parking garbage trains along those tracks. “I think we got an excellent deal,” says Sarah Clark Stuart, co-coordinator of the civic group Free Schuylkill River Park. “It preserves the access we always had and creates additional access. The rail cars causing the biggest olfactory problems will no longer park near the park. And it shows that the Banks and the railroad can coexist.”

More than 40 nonprofit and community groups have shared in creating Schuylkill Banks. All parties involved await future developments: At about Grays Ferry Avenue, the trail will cross the river and continue down the west bank to Bartram’s Gardens by 2008, then to Fort Mifflin on the Delaware by 2012. In ecological restoration, SRDC plans a fish ladder to facilitate the passage of fish swimming upstream at the Fairmount Dam, a boat below the dam to skim floating junk and an environmental wetlands education center in Southwest Philadelphia. Permanent potties do not yet appear on blueprints.

Lucie, age 3, from Swarthmore, lunches in the sun on a bench near a bulkhead, tasting Grandmother’s brie sandwiches. “This is fun, Bobo.”

In Center City, only Schuylkill Banks lets kids poke their fingers in the water. The Schuylkill is doing for Philadelphia what the Delaware River has never pulled off: Creating a fluid public space, as the Seine has long done for Paris, the Arno for Florence and the Tiber for Rome. San Francisco’s Embarcadero, Manhattan’s Battery Park and San Antonio’s Paseo del Rio all needed public investments to make them accessible and attractive, to transform urban landscapes from industrial to recreational. “Waterfront matters,” says Sorrentino. 

The river and its swath between Center City and West Philadelphia have caught up with the needs of an invigorating city. These days the Waterworks faces are smiling more widely.

This article was the cover story in an issue of the AIA's Context magazine.