Aerial view of Graffiti Pier, looking northeast along the Delaware River. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

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When Graffiti Pier is reinvented as a public park, it’ll look a whole lot like it does right now.

That’s the takeaway from the most recent update on the street art site, which has become one of the most photographed places in Philadelphia — despite being on private property.

The riverfront plot is still owned by Conrail, but a 6-acre land transfer to the nonprofit Delaware River Waterfront Corporation is in the works, and the planning of its makeover is well underway. The process is being led by Studio Zewde, a Black woman-owned design firm known for community engagement.

“At every step, we asked people, ‘What is the best thing that can happen to Graffiti Pier?’” founder Sara Zewde said. “The emerging theme was… ‘Don’t touch it.’”

So for the most part, “not touching it” is the plan.

Renderings presented during a Zoom meeting at the end of June showed minimal changes to the pier, which juts into the water just north of Fishtown, across from Petty Island.

Details of the plan for Graffiti Pier as a park Credit: Studio Zewde

The towering length of rail trestle that defines the jetty? Staying as is. The artwork-filled tunnels below? Left intact. Even the jersey barriers marking the semi-hidden entrance are slated to remain — in line with planners’ goal to create a publicly accessible park that feels “found.”

Some new things are being added, including ADA-friendly pathways, more seating, more plants, new art surfaces, guardrails, and a wholesale revamp of the nearby Pier 20, also known as Pebble Beach.

Studio Zewde’s team of landscape architects, environmental engineers, and representatives from community collective Amber Art Design have embraced a few main themes:

  1. Ensure the continuation and expansion of street art
  2. Keep it vegetated and passive
  3. Make it safe and accessible without looking like it
  4. Keep the “grit”

Feedback on the plan is still being accepted. “This is definitely not over, it’s just a point in the process,” Sara Zewde said. But after working on the project since summer 2019, there’s a general concept in place.

Here’s what’s in store for Graffiti Pier when it becomes a public space.

A climate change buffer of sea walls and graded land

Officially known as Pier 18, the jetty was originally constructed as a terminal for Reading Railroad. Since its heyday as a coal transfer wharf during WWII, it has degraded considerably — and water levels have risen.

Right now, explained Studio Zewde’s Ashley Ludwig, tides lap just below the wharf’s edge, and what’s known as a “100 year storm” would totally flood the area.

To mitigate that risk, plans call for upgraded sea walls, and a regrading and replanting of the surrounding shoreline so it’s more resilient to rising tides.

Plans for the entrance to Graffiti Pier Credit: Studio Zewde

A formal entrance for the second level

Currently, getting from the ground level to the top of the concrete structure where train tracks still run requires an awkward clamber. That’ll be replaced with an accessible entrance, Ludwig said, and the surface will be planted with vegetation.

Also coming are more safety guardrails, both along the edges of the trestle’s second level and along the waterline. Their design is fashioned after old shipyard fencing.

The top level of the trestle will get seating, guardrails and plantlife Credit: Studio Zewde

New ground surfacing and lots more plants

In order to make the bumpy dirt paths wheelchair accessible and generally safer, they’ll be covered with smooth, water-permeable surfacing.

New plants will also be inserted, but not in a sculptured, obvious way. Native flora will be used, to look like it grew organically.

A plot of land just northwest of the pier is part of the parcel being transferred to DRWC, and there’s a goal to increase the amount of shaded green space there — something most of the parks in the Port Richmond area are lacking.

The other public parks in the area don’t have much shaded green space Credit: Studio Zewde

More places to write graffiti and draw art

Everything being added to the future park will have paintable surfaces.

That includes new street furniture (large, concrete benches), new retaining walls and sea walls, and also a series of “follies” — aka decorative structures that don’t have a specific architectural purpose.

In a hat tip to the area’s past life, Studio Zewde is proposing a series of rescued train cars be installed at various places along the inland portion of the site.

Former train cars will provide extra surfaces for artists to draw Credit: Studio Zewde

Bathrooms, lighting and trash cans

The plan for lighting the site, important for safety, isn’t yet finalized.

A series of pedestrian poles are being considered to connect the site to the biking and jogging trail that already snakes its way along portions of the waterfront. There’s also potential for light installations on the piers, said designer Ludwig.

One definite addition will be public restrooms, and also trash cans. Bike parking is also being considered, according to Karen Thompson, project manager for the DRWC.

Added greenery and a safety rail on the ground level of the park Credit: Studio Zewde

A shade park and an event space

The very tip of Graffiti Pier will be slightly more landscaped and turned into a shade park.

Similar changes are planned for Pier 20, aka Pebble Beach. Located just south of the main site, the crumbling wharf is currently home to a rope swing, and often used as an entry point for swimming and water acrobatics.

Once its integrity is shored up, it’s envisioned as having a variety of curated surfaces, a footbridge for safe access, and a gathering area with seating for outdoor concerts or presentations.

Plans for Pier 20, aka Pebble Beach Credit: Studio Zewde

The final result is still several years out

Asked about a timeline for finishing the project, DRWC’s Thompson didn’t have a firm answer.

It’ll take about a year to create a final design from this conceptual study, she said, and then “We’re looking a few years out,” for construction to be complete.

To get learn more or get involved, visit the project website.

Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...