Graffiti Pier Credit: Flickr Creative Commons / Novaid Khan

Graffiti Pier, a Philadelphia urban ruin that’s become known as an iconic photography destination, is getting new life.

Property owner Conrail announced Monday that it’s working with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation — aka the folks behind ultra-successful revamps of Spruce Street Harbor Park and Cherry Street Pier — to turn the jetty into a public park.

“Graffiti Pier is next in a series of high-quality public spaces to define Philadelphia’s waterfront,” said DRWC president Joe Forkin in a statement, “and we are excited to work with the community and other stakeholders to make this a reality.”

Renovation plans are in the early stages, but here’s what we know.

A year since the police crackdown

The slowly-eroding but colorfully-decorated concrete structure that juts into the Delaware River in Port Richmond has always technically been private property. But the pier, which is a former Reading Railroad coal loading dock, has been viewed by default as a public space for years.

That public-by-default status ended in May 2018, when police cracked down on trespassing at what’s officially called Pier 18, citing safety concerns.

The move incited an outcry, with fans of the spot suggesting it should be turned over to residents and visitors. Now it appears that vision is actually coming to fruition.

DRWC will be the new land owner

According to an Inquirer report, Conrail has signed a contract to sell six acres of the tract to the DRWC, including the main Pier 18 and a smaller pier to the south.

The nonprofit has a mission to revitalize Philadelphia riverfront, and has set a goal of creating a public park every half-mile along the Delaware. This has been coming to fruition in recent years, taking back Columbus Boulevard from big box stores with new spaces like Race Street Pier and the new fishing pier behind Walmart.

William Penn Foundation is funding an initial study

A few things need to be settled before any work on the land actually begins. The William Penn Foundation is funding an initial study to confirm the structural stability of the pier — i.e. make sure it’s safe to walk and play upon — and to develop a design and entrances for the new park.

Planners will be looking for community input on all of this, the DRWC says. Only after all of that will final terms on the deal be settled.

An idea decades in the making

According to Conrail’s top lawyer, the company — which also runs rail networks in Detroit and Newark but is headquartered in Philadelphia — has been looking to fix up the vacant riverfront land for a while.

“For years we have explored a variety of opportunities to reactivate Pier 18 as a public space to preserve and expand the inherent cultural value of Graffiti Pier,” said VP and Chief Legal Officer Jonathan Broder in a statement.

The idea for a revamp into a public space has been pushed by advocates for more than a decade. In 2007 the blog Philly Skyline put out a plea for the city to do something with the Port Richmond riverfront.

The DRWC didn’t have the same mandate back then. In the intervening years, the organization has proven its mettle in transforming riverfront spaces, Conrail’s Broder said, adding, “We are proud to be a part of the fabric of success.”

Lots of top-down support

In their joint statement announcing the revitalization plans, Conrail and DRWC included the blessings of a cavalcade of public officials.

Mayor Kenney said the project “sends a strong statement that we value the dynamic cultural impact” of the pier, while Councilmember Mark Squilla, in whose district the land falls, took some credit for the plan, offering, “I am happy to have supported Conrail and DRWC efforts to repurpose Graffiti Pier as a public space.”

State Sen. Larry Farnese also weighed in, calling the spot an “underground landmark” and lauding the project as “a gritty example of Philadelphia’s street art culture and the city’s creative spirit to transform a forgotten space into a cultural amenity.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...