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New Pier Park on Delaware River Has Historic Ties to Philly

Pier 53, along the central Delaware River, is the next green space the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC) is developing.

Tue April 22, 2014 - Northeast Edition
Lori Lovely

The Washington Avenue waterfront, site of the country’s first Navy Yard and Philadelphia’s first immigration station (used from the 1870s through WWI), is undergoing renovation in order to create a pier park for public use.

Pier 53, along the central Delaware River, is the next green space the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC) is developing. The project will complement and enhance the surrounding Washington Avenue Green park. When completed, the pier park will feature public access to the end of the pier, where visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the river, and innovative ecological improvements that will benefit the environment, while remaining sensitive to the historical context.

Pier-ing Into the Future

Once the point of entry for more than a million immigrants aspiring to become American citizens, the pier on the Delaware River was eventually abandoned and fell into disrepair. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter calls it "Philadelphia’s version of Ellis Island," and told local reporters that when the pier sat unused for such a long period of time, it was "slowly reclaimed by nature."

Now, crews are in the process of reclaiming the area from nature to become usable public space and, as Nutter phrased it, "a symbol of Philadelphia’s resurgence."

The design for Pier 53 at Washington Avenue Green was developed as a design-build project by Applied Ecological Services. The intention for the pier is to serve as an extension of Washington Avenue Green, a public green space created in 2010.

"Four years ago, DRWC created the first new public space on the central Delaware River in decades by converting a small, one-acre piece of upland area it owned in South Philadelphia into Washington Avenue Green," explained Lizzie Woods, planner/project manager of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. It serves as the northern anchor of a wetlands park and recreational trail system that will run south to Pier 70.

"Washington Avenue Pier is a continuation of that effort to connect the city to its waterfront," Woods said.

The pier also is a pilot project for the eventual creation of a 30-acre ecological park on the Delaware River in South Philadelphia.

"This portion of the riverfront includes a number of abandoned finger piers in various states of decay. Stabilization and ecological restoration techniques that are successful on Washington Avenue Pier will be applied to other piers."

Paying It Forward

Funded through a combination of city of Philadelphia capital money, state grant programs (Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and DEP), and grants from the William Penn Foundation, the project is estimated to cost $2.15 million, including design, engineering and construction. DRWC will continue to manage the site after completion of the work.

Clearing began the day after Christmas 2013. By mid-summer, the overgrowth will have given way to an elevated boardwalk. DRWC President Tom Corcoran anticipates a breath-taking view, stating that, "Visitors will be able to climb on a 16-foot platform that will provide additional views of the river and the park."

In addition to ecological enhancements such as intertidal and riparian plantings, and habitats for fish and wildlife, some of the public amenities planned for the site include an on-grade path that will allow visitors to reach the tip of the pier and get close enough to the water to touch it; the boardwalk; overlooks; seating; and signage relaying information about the site’s history.

"Interpretive art elements will also acknowledge the history of the pier as an immigration station." The purpose, Wood explained, is "to create a place for improved ecological function, urban wildlife habitat and public enjoyment of nature."

A Stable Plan

Before visitors can enjoy the view, crews must stabilize the derelict pier. Working a Monday-to-Friday schedule, a small crew under Feasterville, Pa.-based general contractor Neshaminy Constructors Inc. is using a Cat 325 excavator and Manitex 1870 stinger crane to move materials such as concrete, wood, galvanized steel and crushed stone into place.

Geotextile-encapsulated soil lifts, planting soil, live native plants and native seed mixes are being used as innovative stabilization methods.

Some onsite materials are being repurposed into new park elements. Although the pier structure itself has no official historic designation, Tracey Cohen, senior landscape architect of Applied Ecological Services, said artifacts such as timber beams and salvaged brick will be re-purposed for site amenities such as a gateway feature and gabion benches.

But even the best-laid plans are subject to surprises. "The project includes a timber boardwalk that will be built on existing piles," said Jerry Thorne, chief estimator of Neshaminy Constructors. "Testing showed that the piles in the initial location were not suitable, so the boardwalk was redesigned and relocated to make use of piles that are in good condition."

Other conditions that had to be adapted to include one of the worst winters in decades.

"The weather has been particularly troublesome this winter," Thorne said, referring to numerous snow events that caused construction delays. "Weather-related issues are beyond our control."

Another aspect of nature beyond the crew’s control is the Delaware River. "Working with the river tides has also been a challenge," Thorne said. "Different construction tasks are scheduled to maximize efficiency in relation to daily tidal cycles, [such as] working during low tide in wet areas and moving to higher ground at high tide."

The design-build nature of project has inherent challenges, as well. Variable and unpredictable site conditions related to the deteriorated state of the pier involve frequent communication and adaptive problem solving by the designers, engineers and contractors, Woods said.

"The project is unique and complex and has required close collaboration among all the members of the design-build team from the beginning. From design drawings to fabrication and site construction, the team has worked together iteratively to solve problems and achieve the best possible solutions to accomplish project objectives."

The team includes concrete subcontractor Philadelphia-based Ramos and Associates Inc. Woods also noted that DRWC as an organization has an overall goal of 25 to 30 percent minority- and women-owned business participation on all of its projects.

The new pier is the first in South Philadelphia. A second park — Pier 68 — is already in the works and is expected to open next year.

For additional information on the project, visit

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