Penn’s Landing technically runs from Washington Avenue to Spring Garden Street, representing approximately two miles of Delaware waterfront through the heart of downtown Philadelphia. This is some of the most prime real estate in our fair city, and yet it has been beset by controversy, probably since well before you were born. An article from the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia extensively covers the history of Penn’s Landing since the 1950s, noting the twists and turns that have resulted in its current state of affairs.
On the positive side of the ledger, there are some great things about Penn’s Landing. It’s on a river, and people sure love looking at water. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen new public spaces appear in previously desolate spaces, including Race Street Pier and Cherry Street Pier. Both of those are great! And speaking of great, Spruce Street Harbor Park is a wonderful programmed public space which welcomes both city residents and tourists alike. Plus, ice skating. The Seaport Museum is pretty cool, ditto the Moshulu.
But there are areas where Penn’s Landing falls flat. First, William Penn landed in Chester, not Philadelphia. Don’t tell the tourists. The Great Plaza was constructed as a gathering place and concert venue in the mid-1980s, but its lack of shade and emphasis on concrete and stone makes it a rather unpleasant place to spend any time during the summer months. And of course, there’s the little issue of access, in that getting to Penn’s Landing requires that you cross over or under I-95 and also traverse the incredibly wide Delaware Avenue (Columbus Blvd., whatever). The highway sure makes life easier for people driving from here to there, but it’s a well documented urban planning disaster.
Fortunately, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation was established about a decade ago with an eye toward enlivening Penn’s Landing through a combination of public and private investment. Many of the best things about Penn’s Landing are the work of DRWC, but those are small potatoes compared to their huge plan to truly transform the waterfront on the eastern edge of Center City. About a year ago, we told you that the DRWC had selected the Durst Group as a development partner for a $2.2B waterfront project covering several blocks which will entail a bunch of new buildings, retail, and public space. In between two proposed development blocs will be a reinvented and reimagined Penn’s Landing Park. We’ve been covering this effort since 2013, and now it appears it’s moved to its final iteration.
Thanks in part to a lengthy community engagement process, the latest plan for Penn’s Landing Park is further refined and looks like the best approach yet to this challenging site. As was the case before, I-95 will be completely capped between Walnut and Chestnut Streets, and the park will run all the way from Front Street to the water. Looking at the site plan, we see that the Irish and Scottish Memorials will remain accessible from Front Street, though relocated a bit to the south. A huge section of the park will be dedicated to a play area for kids, and as the tree cover begins to fade as the park heads toward the water, an extensive garden area will add color and interest to the space. A pavilion will sit in the middle of the park, housing a cafe and also serving as a base of operations for a relocated Harbor Park, with programming to match the season. And as was always the case, an amphitheater will remain as park of the park, located close to the river. Check out these renderings, with credit to Hargreaves Jones and KieranTimberlake.
With the design for the park now close to being finalized, we can start looking forward to construction getting started. Unfortunately, we learned over the summer that construction on the I-95 cap, the first step in building the park, has been pushed back from this year to 2023, thanks mostly to Covid. The good news is that the City and DRWC both have a huge incentive to get this park built before 2026, when Philadelphia will celebrate America’s Semiquincentennial. Consider that the city has been trying to solve the puzzle of Penn’s Landing since before the Bicentennial, so let’s hope that the upcoming landmark on the calendar is enough to push this project forward and give us a new public space and a new point of pride, to boot.