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Cascade: No. 82, Winter/Spring 2013

Smaller Cities and Waterfront Redevelopment*

During the late 19th and early 20th century, the Delaware River served as a linchpin for regional economic activity, as Camden and Philadelphia grew into manufacturing centers. By the late 20th century, deindustrialization and suburban development had left Camden’s and Philadelphia’s downtown waterfronts abandoned and obsolete. Today, these cities are working to transform their waterfronts into economic assets once again by carefully planning and developing vibrant mixed-use waterfront communities that offer cultural, commercial, and recreational amenities for residents and visitors.

Although there is no “one-size-fits-all” answer, there are lessons from Camden’s and Philadelphia’s experiences that may be useful to smaller cities facing the challenge of waterfront redevelopment. The following three recommendations can be used to help spearhead the waterfront redevelopment process:

1. Recognize the importance of a nonprofit waterfront redevelopment entity.

Waterfront redevelopment requires a nonprofit champion whose mission is to promote, to facilitate, and sometimes even to build new development. The nonprofit agency must work closely and collaboratively with every level of government as well as with the private sector. This entity must provide consistent, long-term, and focused leadership that extends beyond the terms of most elected officials.

Nonprofit waterfront redevelopment organizations can also bridge jurisdictional lines. For example, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership (CFP) and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC) are focused on their respective municipalities, but they also look at their waterfronts within a regional context and are working together across political boundaries to collaborate on regional branding, joint special events, grant opportunities, and bistate trail planning.

2. Develop a waterfront master plan that reflects the community’s vision but also takes into account the realistic economic potential of the area.

It is critical to establish one clear vision for redevelopment of the waterfront. Development should be guided by a high-quality master plan that is created through a participatory process that incorporates the input of citizens as well as public- and private-sector stakeholders. The plan should be inspirational but also grounded in reality. It is best to bring in a professional planning consultant that recognizes the importance of inclusive, participatory planning. The planner should base recommendations on an analysis of factors, including location, demographics, market conditions, access to transportation, and environmental, historic, and cultural resources.

The master plan should include an implementation strategy that takes into account market dynamics. For example, Philadelphia is working to leverage the existing demand for waterfront housing to attract new retail and entertainment venues in order to animate the waterfront and create a cohesive community. By contrast, in Camden it was determined early on that a critical mass of family entertainment destinations could provide the foundation on which a successful mixed-use community could be developed.

Acquiring site control of waterfront parcels, environmental remediation, and public infrastructure development are complex and expensive and are accomplished incrementally over time. Therefore, it is important for the implementation strategy to have a realistic time horizon and a phasing plan.

The waterfront master plan should set forth a land-use and zoning framework that is adopted by the municipality. Over time, the political climate and market conditions may change. Therefore, the plan must be flexible enough to take advantage of unanticipated opportunities, but it must also be specific and clear enough to maintain its fundamental integrity. Plan elements such as preservation of public waterfront access should be nonnegotiable.

According to the master plan for the Central Delaware waterfront, a large new park is to be constructed between Chestnut and Walnut streets, stretching from the riverfront to Front Street in Philadelphia. The park will be built over I-95 and Columbus Boulevard.According to the master plan for the Central Delaware waterfront, a large new park is to be constructed between Chestnut and Walnut streets, stretching from the riverfront to Front Street in Philadelphia. The park will be built over I-95 and Columbus Boulevard.
Credit: Rendering © Kieran Timberlake/Brooklyn Digital Foundry

3. Use public investments in infrastructure and amenities to attract the public, build momentum, and leverage private-sector investments.

Today, many former manufacturing cities have large swaths of underutilized waterfront land that blocks access to the water. It is first critical to focus on creating physical and visual connections from these communities to their waterfronts. In Philadelphia and Camden, new and existing street connections are being developed and enhanced to create easy access from existing adjacent neighborhoods to the waterfront.

Both Philadelphia and Camden have also focused on the development of a linear public park and walkway along the water. Both cities have also identified opportunities to connect the trails along their waterfront into a larger regional trail network, creating not only a recreational amenity but also a sustainable transportation alternative.

Through management, planning, and design, both cities are fostering welcoming and dynamic public spaces on their waterfronts. Camden and Philadelphia also host a growing mix of events and activities to animate the public spaces on the waterfront, including performances, festivals, holiday celebrations, craft fairs, a kayaking program, ice skating, and a fountain for water play. The CFP and the DRWC are also using traditional and social media to promote waterfront activities and to reach new visitors.

Securing funding for public investments and programming requires creativity and the ability to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. The CFP and the DRWC have also secured grants through local, county, state, and federal agencies focused on the environment, transportation, historic preservation, economic development, community development, fishing and boating, and the arts. Corporate sponsorships and grants, foundation grants, university partnerships, and public-private partnerships are among the sources that can be assembled to make public projects possible.

With strong master plans and strategic public investments, cities such as Camden and Philadelphia have created the conditions to foster renewed vibrancy and economic purpose for their waterfronts for the 21st century.

  • * The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia or the Federal Reserve System.