The long, careful process of building Northeast Philly’s waterfront trail

Spoke Magazine | By Bradley Maul

Six months into his first term as mayor, on a stage inside the Independence Seaport Museum, Michael Nutter gave his blessings to a plan that would change the course of the Delaware River waterfront. In endorsing the “Master Plan for the Central Delaware,” he applauded the relaunch of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC) and invited the public back to the historic but then-maligned river that gave Philadelphia its very existence.

Later the same year, 25 miles north, another non-profit development group called the Delaware River City Corporation (DRCC) quietly cut the ribbon to herald a new era for a different, and in many ways more challenging, stretch of waterfront.

A mile-long bike and pedestrian trail where Pennypack Park meets the Delaware opened in November 2008. With it, DRCC recognized its first of many projects that would bring Philadelphians to a section of the river known more for its faded industry and an elevated highway than for recreational bike rides. When complete, the entire 11-mile North Delaware Greenway will run from Port Richmond to Bucks County — and function as Northeast Philly’s contribution to the region’s trail network, not to mention an integral part of the 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway.

While DRWC has opened three permanent pier parks and seasonal spaces like Spruce Street Harbor Park, it’s had the advantages of already owning much of its land and the high visibility of a central location. DRCC, meanwhile, has had to navigate a complex network of lesser-known spaces, some industrial, some postindustrial, to breathe life into a contiguous Northeast Philly waterfront.

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Borski championed the idea — a greenway to slink through the Northeast’s rusting waterfront — to provide recreational opportunities in his district that had never been there before. In 2004 he founded DRCC, which laid the trail’s groundwork in a master plan the following year. A decade later, with Borski as the corporation’s chairman of the board, parts of that trail are ready for use.

“Our charge with the [North Delaware] Greenway is to connect the adjacent communities to the river,” says Tom Branigan, who became DRCC’s executive director in 2011. (He previously spent 38 years as an engineer with the Philadelphia Streets Department, during which time he spearheaded the development of bike lanes and infrastructure.) While that sounds sensible enough, it’s particularly challenging in a stretch of town once dominated by industry across many miles and many properties. To that end, DRCC has partnered with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation (PPR) to manage the necessary land.

“Everything that we develop and build will be part of PPR’s inventory: their property, their right-of-way, their trees,” Branigan says. “So we coordinate closely with them, work with them to help us acquire property to build the trails.”

The project also falls within a master plan for trails throughout the city, adopted by the Planning Commission in 2013 and developed in collaboration with PPR and the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU).

“The amount of coordination going on between City agencies, the State, the feds, and the non-profit partner to get these projects completed is key,” says Rob Armstrong, PPR’s capital projects manager. The roster includes the City’s Streets, Water, Commerce and Law departments, the Planning Commission, MOTU, City Council, and one perhaps surprising partner: the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).

“PennDOT is doing an immense amount of work,” Armstrong says of the state agency, known in the area more for its ongoing rebuild of an aging stretch of I-95 than for creating urban parks. “PennDOT’s designing and building a separated trail for PPR and the City — and its citizens. This is very forward thinking of them.”

Jeannette Brugger, MOTU’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, agrees. “PennDOT is acknowledging that highways impact neighborhoods, and this is a way to give back to them,” she says. “What we’re seeing is a shift in policy and practice. They’re still doing I-95, but they’re also considering bikes and pedestrians.”

Bridesburg, a neighborhood just north of Frankford Creek, demonstrates what this sort of trail could do for communities throughout the Northeast. Hemmed in by I-95, the Betsy Ross Bridge and several industrial sites, Bridesburg has for decades been a riverside neighborhood without a waterfront.

“Industry long ago caused a shutoff to the river,” says Joe Slabinski, a funeral director and president of the Bridesburg Community Development Corporation. “But now that it’s gone, we’ve had an awakening to come back to the river.”

Take the case of Dietz & Watson, the deli meat and cheese empire headquartered on the Delaware River in Bridesburg. In a deal struck last year that involved the City, the State and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, Dietz & Watson will move to the nearby site of the Frankford Arsenal, a former munitions plant. This will open up 10 acres of new park space through which the greenway will pass.

When built, the park will sit at the foot of Orthodox Street, one of three streets DRCC has designated as connectors from neighborhoods to the trail. Along with Magee and Princeton avenues, Orthodox Street will feature plantings and signage leading to the waterfront, and potentially include a separate bike lane as well.

“All of this is really generating excitement and awareness,” Slabinski says, not just of his Bridesburg neighbors but of everyone in the project’s area. “People want to see action, and now that it’s actually happening, they’re expecting great things.”