To Hook Investors, Philly Baits The Waterfront With Low-Cost Parks | WOSU Radio

To Hook Investors, Philly Baits The Waterfront With Low-Cost Parks

Sep 11, 2015
Originally published on September 14, 2015 9:44 am

Like a lot of cities, Philadelphia has tried and failed to lure big developers and megaprojects to turn its decaying waterfront into a destination. Now, the nonprofit that manages the waterfront is doing something different.

It's starting small — and cheap.

This formerly desolate stretch of the Delaware River waterfront is now home to several low-cost, seasonal parks that are attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors. The group's latest waterfront project is a park with a roller skating rink and a lodge decorated with fishing poles, picnic tables, nautical blue couches.

"We're using old cargo containers, which honestly aren't that expensive to procure," says Jodie Milkman, the vice president of communications and programming for the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. "This space is populated by trees and tree stumps and wood chips."

Nearby, there's another harbor park filled with hammocks, arcade games and food and beer vendors.

Both parks each cost less than $1 million to build. Visitors don't seem to mind — or even realize — the waterfront parks were made on the cheap.

"It seems like a place where you might have to pay to get in, but it's free and everyone can access it," says Caya Simonsen as she lies in one of the free hammocks at the harbor park. She says the park actually feels kind of fancy to her.

The parks draw a diverse crowd. "Folks looked like investment bankers, folks looked like they were walking through with their families, young people on skateboards," says Lou Valente, who works on park-related projects for the state of New Jersey. He visited the harbor park last year for inspiration.

When it opened last year, the Spruce Street Harbor Park brought in half a million people – five times as many as planners expected. Even more people showed up this year.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation also runs a wintertime park with an ice rink and a lodge.

CEO Tom Corcoran says the parks are a way to get people used to coming down to the river — "and then once they do, and the time comes for the public sector to invest more," he says, "you have a built in political support system of people who want to see great things happen on their waterfront."

The group hopes those people will support the city's $250 million waterfront master plan and show developers who bring tax dollars, jobs and housing that it's worth building on the river.

Marielle Segarra is a reporter for Keystone Crossroads, a statewide public media initiative reporting on the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities.

Copyright 2018 WHYY. To see more, visit WHYY.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Delaware River flows past brown fields, trash and abandoned buildings in Philadelphia - the remains of the city's industrial past. Like a lot of cities, Philadelphia has tried and failed to lure big developers and megaprojects to turn its decaying waterfront into a destination. Now the nonprofit that manages the waterfront is doing something different. It's starting small and cheap. Member station WHYY's Marielle Segarra has our story.

MARIELLE SEGARRA, BYLINE: The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation is great at bargain hunting. Ask Jodie Milkman. She's DRWC's vice president of communications and programming. She's walking through the group's latest project, a park with a roller skating rink and a lodge decorated with fishing poles, picnic tables and nautical blue couches.

JODIE MILKMAN: Take a look around this park. We're using our old cargo containers, which, honestly, aren't that expensive to procure. This space is populated by trees and tree stumps and wood chips.

SEGARRA: This is one of several low-cost seasonal parks that are bringing hundreds of thousands of people to a formerly desolate stretch of the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia. On the harbor nearby, there's another park filled with hammocks, arcade games, and food and beer vendors. Both parks cost less than a million dollars to build. Visitors don't seem to mind or even realize the waterfront parks were made on the cheap.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Come on Joe.

SEGARRA: Caya Simonsen is laying in one of the free hammocks at the harbor park. She says the park actually feels kind of fancy to her.

CAYA SIMONSEN: It seems like a place where you might have to pay to get in, but it's free and everyone can access it.

SEGARRA: It's obvious from visiting that the parks draw a diverse crowd. Lou Valente works on park-related projects for the state of New Jersey. He visited the harbor park last year for inspiration.

LOU VALENTE: Folks looked like investment bankers, folks looked like they were walking through with their families, young people on skateboards.

SEGARRA: And people of various races and ethnicities. When the harbor park opened last year, it brought in half a million people - five times as many as planners expected. Even more people showed up this year.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation also runs a wintertime park. There's an ice skating rink and a lodge that brings crowds to the water during the colder months. CEO Tom Corcoran says the parks are a way to get people used to coming down to the river.

TOM CORCORAN: And then once they do and the time comes for the public sector to invest more, you have a built-in political support system of people who want to see great things happen on their waterfront.

SEGARRA: The group hopes those people will support the city's $250 million waterfront master plan and show developers - who bring tax dollars, jobs and housing - that it's worth building on the river. For NPR News, I'm Marielle Segarra.

SIEGEL: Marielle Segarra is a reporter for Keystone Crossroads, a statewide public media initiative reporting on the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.