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Unlocking Our Hidden River: Revitalization on the Schuylkill

Philadelphia has succeeded in glamorizing the Schuylkill River waterfront in Center City and is well on its way to making the Delaware River waterfront between Pennsport and Port Richmond a draw for locals and tourists alike.

Yet, in many cases the regions around the lower Schuylkill River in South and Southwest Philadelphia have felt disconnected from the aquatic treasure meandering through them. Instead of trails and parks, the lower Schuylkill River is encased by refineries, industrial sites, and transportation infrastructure. The one public garden that does adorn the Schuylkill, Bartram's Garden, often seems fragmented from the rest of the city and difficult to access from the wildly popular trail along the very same river only about a mile upstream. 

With the current underuse of the lower Schuylkill River at heart, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), in conjunction with the City Planning Commission and the Department of Commerce and with funding from the William Penn Foundation, is soliciting public input for its Lower Schuylkill River District Master Plan. According to Kate McNamara, PIDC's project manager for the master plan, the study area runs from Lindbergh Blvd. in the west to the Platt Bridge in the east. Trending south, the study area dips down to the Philadelphia International Airport, and to the north even extends into parts of University City. 

McNamara confirms that the master plan has six primary goals:
- assign an identity to the lower Schuylkill region
- prioritize economic growth and job development
- connect the lower Schuylkill
- protect and cultivate diversity and flexibility
- employ environmentally-friendly methods to restore land and water
- "reveal the hidden river," says McNamara (incidentally, "hidden river" is the Schuylkill's translation in Dutch)

A Race for Open Space
To accomplish these, PIDC and its partners seem poised to shine a laser on open space and water runoff. One such partner is LRSLA design studio, which has experience in designing the Ben Franklin Parkway streetscape, the Clark Park playground, various walks at UPenn, the Porch at 30th Street, and the Friends School at Haverford's master plan. LRSLA is focused on providing more open space in the lower Schuylkill region.

"There's a concentration on open space and stormwater management," says Julie Bush, a principal at LRSLA. She quickly adds that the only real substantive examples of open space in the district right now are Bartram's Garden and Woodlands Cemetery. 

One of the challenges behind open space in the lower Schuylkill district is working around the pollution and contamination that the region's heavy industry, including Sunoco and DuPont's Marshall Laboratories, have wrought on the area through the previous decades. LRSLA is beginning to examine brownfields and other sites that might be contaminated, says Anna Swanberg, a landscape architect at the firm.

While the lower Schuylkill study area contains more industry than residents, the people who do live in the area seem happy at the intent to renew the river's waterfront. One such person is Donna Henry, the executive director of the Southwest Community Development Corporation, a member of the Lower Schuylkill Master Plan advisory group.

"Twenty-five years ago I worked in East Falls a couple blocks in from the Schuylkill and it was very natural for me to bring my lunch to the river and eat it while looking at the river," says Henry. She sees PIDC embarking on a similar effort to transform the river's edge in Southwest Philly as has been done in Center City, East Falls, and other points north. However, she shudders when thinking about the effects of the area's many brownfields. Henry believes the river will become a destination "when brownfields aren't creating a barricade."

Myra Smoot, a Grays Ferry resident who attended PIDC's first open house for the master plan a pebble's skip away from Bartram's Garden in Southwest Philly, concurs with Henry and others who see the river playing an integral role in introducing nature to Southwest Philadelphia residents. She says that the emphasis on a recreation area is a wonderful idea. Going a step further, Smoot says she wouldn't mind more outdoor nature centers like Bartram's, which could teach her neighbors about the environment, habitats, and even earth-friendly forms of energy.

Bartram's Garden, which is another member of the Lower Schuylkill Master Plan advisory group, echoes the need for more waterfront open space in the area.

"Southwest Philadelphia has just 1% tree coverage, the lowest in the city," says Stephanie Phillips, the assistant director of the garden, referencing a 2009 Pennsylvania Horticultural Society study.

Building Trails to the River
Phillips also points out that Bartram's conducted a strategic planning process in 2008, which was comprised of over 500 local and neighboring residents, businesses, and other stakeholders. She says one of the major conclusions of the process was the neighborhood's need to re-connect with the river.

"The (Lower Schuylkill) plan will promote activity and revitalization of this important connector in our community," she says.

The Lower Schuylkill District Plan prioritizes trails as a means of re-connecting residents of Southwest and South Philly and other Philadelphians to the river. Southwest CDC's Henry is especially encouraged by the concept of trails.

"This will help Southwest by providing much needed green space that can be used for recreational purposes, particularly for running, walking and biking paths because it is difficult for those activities to happen in the smaller square block parks and on the city streets," says Henry.

Over at Bartram's Garden, Phillips proudly points out that construction has just begun on a trail that will connect the garden with Lindbergh Blvd., and will be finalized in May. She expects this trail to be extended to the Schuylkill River Trail and Center City by 2015. Undoubtedly, this trail should signify one of the earliest achievements of the master plan. 

More Jobs and Public Input On the Way
Another major segment to revitalizing the area around the Schuylkill River is economic development and job growth. Of the six goals that PIDC has identified, this is the toughest one to forecast because of the uncertainty shrouding the future of the Sunoco refinery in Marcus Hook. Bill Westhafer, who is looking at the economic picture on behalf of the consultant Environetics, makes it clear that the district plans has "options" for the Sunoco parcel. With this in mind, it's very hard to prognosticate what could happen with Sunoco's property, since they could still find a buyer to take over. While the future of the refinery looks gloomy, economic development potential could emerge from the South Philadelphia refinery in the coming months.

Regardless of what happens with the refinery, Westhafer says the master plan looks at creating 44,000 jobs in the district. He says the area's vast land mass could help make this ambitious job creation figure a reality. Over at Southwest CDC, Henry reiterates the vitality of job creation.

"Philadelphia needs good, stable jobs for people and creating inviting locations for light industrial jobs would help the local economy, says Henry. Given the amount of unemployed and underemployed Philadelphians in South and Southwest, creating local jobs along the lower Schuylkill River would be distinctly advantageous.  

PIDC has been emphasizing public feedback to propel the Lower Schuylkill District Plan. They have an advisory group that includes 61 members, along with Bartram's Garden and Southwest CDC.  According to PIDC's McNamara, other organizations, agencies, and universities in the advisory group include the Schuylkill River Development Corporation (SRDC), Woodlands Cemetery, Grays Ferry Community Council, University City District, Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center, Sunoco, and CSX. They've held two public meetings so far, one in the Southwest and one in Point Breeze, and are currently running an on-line survey. McNamara says the Development Corporation will hold two more public meetings in the middle of April, with one meeting on each side of the hidden river.  

ANDY SHARPE is Development News editor for Flying Kite. Send feedback here.


Schuylkill Banks

View of the Swing Bridge from Schuylkill Banks looking west to Bartram's Garden

Schuylkill Banks

Renovations in progress at Bartram's Garden

Raised beds being built at Bartram's Garden

Bartram's Gardens

Grays Ferry Ave

The George C. Platt Bridge

All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO

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