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How I-95 broke Philly’s waterfront (and what the city is doing to fix it)

Philly is dreaming big and small along the Delaware River after decades of damage caused by one highway

Karen Thompson and Lizzie Woods are standing at the corner of Front and Chestnut streets in Old City, an intersection that, depending on which direction you're facing, looks into a landscaped park, a colonial American neighborhood, a surface parking lot, or a beige patchwork of concrete highway infrastructure.

It'll all make more sense in a few years, they say. For real this time.

Thompson and Woods are planners at the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DWRC), a nonprofit that was founded to be, in its own words, “the steward of the waterfront.” In June, DRWC announced that it had collected the $225 million needed to cap over a small portion of Interstate 95—the highway that runs 1,919 miles from the Canadian border in Maine to Biscayne Bay in Miami—and turn it into a waterfront park by 2021.

In fact, there's already a park built over part of this area—the Irish Memorial—but because it’s separated from the waterfront by Columbus Boulevard, it feels sort of like a cage suspended in the sky. The new 12-acre park by Hargreaves Associates is designed so that even the pedestrian who passes by its western edge on Front Street will recognize it as a waterfront park.

“It'll have a flat cap over 95 and over Columbus Boulevard, and then it'll slope down,” Woods.

"With respect to Penn’s Landing and the waterfront in general, you had how many decades of massive projects being proposed and you had, rightfully, most people just like..." Thompson says, rolling her eyes in mock disbelief. "We want to build something that is beautiful and is going to last for as long as possible—and have it be a public space that isn't a pop up. We want it to make people feel like it's a reality."

If the project succeeds—and right now there's no indication that it won't—it will be a welcome stitch between the waterfront and the neighborhoods, which are separated up and down the river by the interstate. Zooming in on Chestnut Street, and imagining the lush, leisurely stroll from Old City down to the water's edge, it's easy to get excited about the future of the waterfront. Zooming out a bit, things still look sort of bleak.

The construction of I-95 along the Delaware River separated a string of neighborhoods from its waterfront.
Video by Philly by Drone

If you want to get a good grasp on what the presence of Interstate 95 means for a city like Philadelphia, it’s helpful to figure out how it got there in the first place.

On one level, the Interstate Highway System feeds into a romantic vision of autonomous, transnational mobility that can’t be neatly separated from the very concept of America. Dreamt up during the early 20th century and created during the Eisenhower administration, the network was built to connect cities across the U.S. and provide important military pathways in case of national emergency (its official name is The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways).

But one can sympathize with the frustration in a 1965 Associated Press story about construction progress on I-95, headlined, “One Traffic Light Mars Maine-Virginia Route.” Unobstructed motion was the dream; locality was the impediment. The interstate would only work if it put the uniformity of the highway system itself ahead of the integrity of any individual stop along the way.

Penn’s Landing consists of a sea of parking lots and a series of concrete stairs and that lead down to the Delaware River waterfront.

On another level—the level on which most people now experience it day to day—the highway system functioned to link cities with outlying suburbs, and to subsidize automobile transit between the two. This may look like a losing equation for the cities that would need to accommodate the interstates, but at the time, planners felt they had no choice but to remake cities for the automobile age. And besides, the federal government was going to cover 90 percent of the cost of construction.

Despite the federal largesse, cities across the country chose to route their interstates through the cheapest land. In many places, this meant the destruction of poor neighborhoods, often ethnic enclaves and communities of color. In others, like Philadelphia, it also meant the fading industrial waterfronts.

“The idea of putting a highway next to the waterfront is so stupid,” says Matt Ruben, chair of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, which has been working to revitalize the waterfront east of the highway in one form or another since 2006. “But one of the main reasons that the reformers in the Democratic Party were able to take over from the century-old Republican machine in Philadelphia in 1951 was that the corrupt Republican machine had let the port and the piers fall into disrepair. That was soon followed after by a period of massive deindustrialization.”

He continues, “So if it's the 1950s and 60s and you're looking to put in a big highway,[...] the Delaware River waterfront is the place where you have tons of cheap, underutilized land. So why not put it there?”

The view from the Chestnut Street overpass toward Walnut Street, with the river to the far left and Society Hill to the far right. This entire portion will be capped with an eight-acre park.

The stories of Robert Moses swinging a “meat ax” through established neighborhoods to build highways in New York are well-known. Miami and Baltimore lost whole neighborhoods as well. In Philly, it’s tough to point to one neighborhood that got the raw end of the deal.

Instead, the highway simply shaved off a portion of dozens of communities that connected to the Delaware River—Pennsport, Queen Village, Old City, and Northern Liberties, to name a few. (The more middle-class residents of Society Hill, which was newly created by Ed Bacon, the same planner who promoted the waterfront route for I-95, were able to get its portion of the interstate sunken below grade and partially capped from the get-go.)

But when I-95 finally opened in 1979, a decade after construction began, the city lost something more abstract as well.

“It's obvious, but it separated us from our waterfront,” says Ruben. “All of the neighborhoods along the Delaware River were waterfront neighborhoods. They were integrally connected to their ports and their waterfront. And it cut them off from that. It caused or accelerated the loss of population, it destroyed social cohesiveness, it wreaked havoc on the built environment. It created a giant gash in our city.”

The intersection of Front and Chestnut streets from Old City, looking toward the overpass leading to Penn’s Landing. DWRC promises this place will make more sense in a few years.

Another reason to keep history in mind when looking at the waterfront is that it can help ward off dead-end thinking. To walk to the river from any number of urban neighborhoods today is to encounter an elevated highway structure that is completely out of scale with the surrounding environment. In some places it feels dangerous to walk through the dark underpasses. And even in places where I-95 is already buried, it feels dangerous to cross over Christopher Columbus Boulevard, the at-grade arterial thoroughfare that runs parallel to the interstate along the Central Delaware. These things aren’t natural.

“The highways are only roughly fifty years old,” says Harris Steinberg, executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University. “In the scheme of things, that's pretty new. We don't know what new technologies are coming down the road, no pun intended. So we should seriously question whether we should rebuild these interstates in kind, as we are doing, for an outdated technology that is essentially anti-urban.”

A decade ago, when he was founding executive director of PennPraxis at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, Steinberg led efforts to create A Civic Vision for the Central Delaware, which laid out some ambitious goals for the redevelopment of the waterfront. Over time, the civic vision has become the foundation for more concrete documents, like DRWC’s Master Plan for the Central Delaware and the Central Delaware Zoning Overlay. These plans vary in scope and ambition, but the foundational goal of each is recreating the waterfront as an active, walkable, urban place.

Waterfront advocates see that goal being served in part by private development. In order to attract the amenities necessary for an urbanized waterfront, more people are going to have to live nearby. There’s been some progress on that front, with big riverfront residential projects like One Water Street as well as the steady repopulation of neighborhoods like Pennsport. And the vision calls for public development as well, with parks like the proposed new cap over I-95 and the lengthening of the river trail running along the Central Delaware.

But the highway itself is the biggest barrier. Steinberg criticizes DRWC and the city for not making any progress on platting the key “connector streets” between the neighborhoods and the river, which would extend the street grid and ensure that waterfront development matches development patterns on the other side of the highway.

A bridge along Walnut Street over I-95 connects the city to Penn’s Landing. To leave Penn’s Landing and return to the city, one must climb a set of stairs to reach this point or take an elevator.

Others have said the city should be thinking even bigger and remove big portions of the interstate altogether. San Francisco’s waterfront was famously improved after a 1989 earthquake led to the removal of a highway there, and many cities around the U.S. have toyed with the idea of wiping out freeways as well. Meanwhile, parks have been built on highway caps in Dallas, and Atlanta is in the early stages of a similar project.

Attractive as it is, the prospect of removing I-95 in Philly seems dubious, at least in the short term. The reconstruction of the interstate is well underway, and no life-changing updates are in store for it from a city-dweller’s perspective. But Matt Ruben is keeping his eye on the future, hoping that the growth of self-driving cars will combine with a trend toward reduced car use by city dwellers to create more efficient traffic management, and thus deflate the demand for automobile infrastructure.

Both Ruben and Steinberg said they would like to see I-95 and Columbus Boulevard be combined into one surface road, like the West Side Highway in Manhattan, which was built as an elevated highway and later brought down to grade.

“I have no hope in the short term, but I have a lot of hope in the longer term,” Ruben says. “We don't know what the future's going to hold. [...] There's a lot of fighting now about a cultural change and getting people's attitudes to change, and I understand that, but I think in the longer term, it's gonna be that and technology.”

A rendering of a large park on the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia. Renderings by Hargreaves Associates

The Penn’s Landing project will cap a portion of I-95 and transform the multi-acre site into a lush 12-acre park. In addition, a two-mile on-road section of the Delaware River Trail will be built from Spring Garden Street down to Washington Avenue.

Meanwhile, DRWC is trying to manage immediate improvements with more ambitious thinking.

“It's always such a balancing act,” says Lizzie Woods, “because planning as an exercise, if you do it only with those completely aspirational goals in mind, then people start to think the plans aren't worth anything, because they never get realized. At the same time, if you do only what you know you're going to be able to do with the resources that you know are available, that can be kind of stymying to imagination and creativity.”

It may seem naive to hope that the U.S. will ever see another major infrastructure investment, but the Interstate Highway System was just a dream until a giant pot of federal money made it inevitable. Yet it’s worth wondering: If another investment like that ever comes along, will cities like Philly be ready to insist that it works to their benefit?

Penn's Landing

S Columbus Blvd, Philadelphia, PA
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