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It’s been more than a half-century, but it looks like an 11-acre park capping I-95 is finally going to happen.
The City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the William Penn Foundation are providing roughly 96 percent of the funding for an 11-acre project that will cover Interstate 95 between Chestnut and Walnut streets, connecting the Delaware River waterfront with the rest of the city. The project plan dates back a full decade, to 2007, but the notion of draping the highway with a park goes back decades more.
Covering up that stretch of the highway is something that’s been argued for since the ’60s, when plans for I-95 construction were devised and construction later began. Architects and planners opposed the placement from jump street; neighbors protested fiercely. Opponents pushed for a six-block cap as a compromise to connect Old City back to the riverfront, and only this week does it seem that this proposal will be realized.
Anyone who’s tried to cross Columbus Boulevard beneath the highway can tell you the current layout doesn’t work. Experts frankly and easily call it bad urbanism. Ideally, urban freeways would be laid more toward the outskirts and plug into a network of roads, rather than bisecting densely packed neighborhoods and disrupting access across zones. Nationwide, as former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx criticized last year, neighborhoods razed for urban highway construction led to mass displacement and disportionately impacted lower-income residents and people of color. Philly doesn’t just have expressways that cut through our city’s core, we’ve got the big daddy of highways stretched along our riverfront. Penn’s Landing, all in all, is only 28 acres from Market to South. That’s like 21 football fields lined up together in a thin strip.
So Billy Penn decided to take a look a back at how plans for a I-95 cap developed, or didn’t develop, over the last 58 years.
Interstate 95 construction begins. The City Planning Commission actually designed the project in the ‘30s, though. The highway was completed in 1979, except for The stretch near Philadelphia International Airport, which wasn’t done until 1985.
Back in the day, it wasn’t an obvious reality to everyone that placing a highway on a city’s riverfront was a ghastly idea. This move was championed by Ed Bacon. Yes, that would be Kevin Bacon’s dad, then city planning commission executive director and the most city’s important planner in the last century.
With the lion’s share of the funding secured through the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, state and local planners plotted an expressway track that would be “the conveyor belt of Philadelphia.” Bacon explained, “We think it better not to fight with the automobile…but rather to treat it as an honored guest and cater to its needs.” Architect Frank Weise thought the plan was bullshit from the start and fought it until he lost, but then started mobilizing efforts around a progenitor to the cap project that’s on the table now. Those talks started in 1963.
Plenty of residents in neighborhoods along the river took issue with the highway project. After yearslong protests and debates, the plan was amended. According to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, in this amended plan, a six-block cap was nixed in favor of two covers that would run from Gatzmer to Chestnut and from Delancey to Dock. These sections are where you can find the Irish Memorial, the Monument to Scottish Immigrants and the Korean War Memorial today.
All these conversations continued up until 2002, when Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote on the city’s waterfront. The series highlighted Weise’s efforts. Saffron’s writing made an impression: She was an early voice in the modern wave of planners, developers and urbanists who agree that I-95’s placement is horrendous, and in her typical fashion she was unsparing, eloquent and essentially read the highway for filth. She rendered 95 as a “highway canyon.”
PennPraxis, a nonprofit that operates out of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, released a A Civic Vision for the Waterfront, a plan that urged reconnecting the city to the Delaware. When PennPraxis presented the plan to the public, Next City reported that the turnout “spilled out of the 900 seat chamber and into a simulcast room.”
The Delaware River Water Corporation incorporated the cap into its Master Plan. “While there are long-term plans to rebuild the highway south of Race Street which are outside of the scope of the master plan, the plan contains short- and mid-term solutions to mitigate the highway and improve access to the waterfront,” read a note from the plan’s executive summary. The DRWC called for a park to drape over I-95 between Chestnut and Walnut.
The city adopted DRWC’s plan: The Planning Commission voted unanimously in favor of this move that March. As PlanPhilly reported, the commission’s Vice Chair Joe Syrnick gave the following remarks: “It’s an ambitious plan. It’s not perfect, but this area has languished for far too long, and it needs a road map for moving forward.”
The DRWC put out a call for proposals that February for the project. Karen Thompson, a project manager for the DRWC explained to Next City at the time, “The site is divided into four elements. The cap, the slanted park, the Market Street sites and the South Street Bridge developments around the basin. The team that we assemble will look at phasing and costs for each element.”
DRWC held a public meeting later that year for their feasibility study, in which they went over early proposals.
In April 2014, the DRWC released a feasibility study on the project. The findings forecast $1.6 billion in economic growth from the park, but also gave it a $250 million price tag. Then, they kicked off a series of 17 meetings, with stakeholders, neighborhood groups and the general public.
Then-Mayor Michael Nutter committed $10 million for another study in his last press conference as mayor, this time to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.
“I think everybody has recognized, in the whole scheme of things, replacement of I-95 and the damage that it’s done to this city and a number of others is pretty clear,” said Nutter, as reported in the Philadelphia Business Journal.
Mayor Jim Kenney told PlanPhilly that the city will commit $90 million to the project over six years. The site reported that the project’s overall cost had slimmed down some: Not $250 million, but $225 million. Kenney, who hails from Whitman, spoke to the highway’s legacy in South Philadelphia in his interview with PlanPhilly. “I grew up in a neighborhood where literally thousands of homes were taken to build I-95,” the mayor said said. “Thousands of families displaced and houses torn down. It was a very traumatic experience. We lost a whole segment of our history that we’ll never get back, for a superstructure that will never go away. It’s time to mitigate that intrusion and to cap it.”
Billy Penn reported yesterday that PennDOT is committing $100 million, in addition to the $10 million they chipped in during the project’s early days. The William Penn Foundation is providing another 15 million, which means there’s only $10 million left to raise.
“A lot of good things have happened on the Waterfront in the past five years,” said Joe Forkin, Vice President for Operations and Development of the DRWC, through a spokeswoman. “The successes of the last five years prove the Master Plan’s key principle that strategic investment in public access and world-class civic space leverages significant private investment opportunities, and we expect this project will have a major economic return on investment for the City and the Commonwealth.”