PHOTOS: And Analysis of Washington Avenue Pier (Formerly Pier 53) On the Delaware


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Late last week one more of Philadelphia's disused and decaying piers (Pier 53) was reborn as Washington Avenue Pier and opened to the public. Quite different from prior waterfront interventions like Race Street Pier in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge, Washington Avenue Pier is informal, undulating and natural focusing on the ecology of the Delaware rather than the urbanity of the city. It follows on the heels of habitat restoration and waterfront trail construction DRWC and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection have been developing for several years now. Prior projects have laid the groundwork for Washington Avenue Pier

*To enlarge photos, simply click them*

Unlike Race Street Pier's entrance to the north that pulls folks in with writ bold font labeling the space and a large wide entrance to the pier visible from Delaware Ave, Washington Avenue Pier's entrance is nearly lost at the intersection of two major roadways. Though the marker entrance to the park looks large and obvious in photos below, it fades very quickly from a distance. This gives the long, narrow easment-like path that pulls users into the trail that leads them to the pier's entrance an almost clandestine nature. The entrance feels hidden in plain sight. Native plantings here feel mature and naturalized after only a couple of seasons. 

The entrance marker may look obvious but from a distance the letters fade.

After making a small swoop at the very beginning of the trail, a gate-like entrance welcomes users into Washington Avenue Pier. Rustic chic would be the aesthetic here but the entrance is a subtle reminder that this space used to be the gateway to America for many recently arrived immigrants. A winding, dipping path leads pier-goers to a grove of trees in the distance, but from the entrance the focal point of the public space is not immediately apparent. Contrast this with the sharp-angled high design of Race Street Pier and the two spaces couldn't feel more different.

A mini gate.

Washington Avenue Pier's bend towards nature and native plants continues the trend on the trailhead that leads you into the space. Though native plants need less water than spaces designed with more exotic species, the lack of infrastructure for watering for what are currently small, almost undersized plantings, is notable. More plants are planned once the initial plants establish according to Emma Fried-Cassorla at DRWC. I hope plants fill in as nicely as they have just outside the pier entrance.

Feels a bit underplanted with such small plants.

The grove of trees on the pier marks a transition to the focal point of the pier, the viewpoint at the end. Here the path turns sharply and forces the user to take note of the change. Two options are presented past the fork in the trail leading to the pier's end, a bridge-like pier to the right and the spiral staircase-like beacon viewpoint at the end. Taking either one will lead you in a loop and give you a great view of the wide open Delaware River. The Ben Franklin Bridge acts as a wayfinding device for miles of viewshed to the north, south and east.

Butterfly weed, one of the many natives planted.

The spiral is part logistic, part art. It is "Land Buoy" by Jody Pinto and it evokes a lit mooring on the Delaware with its blue tip. The staircase leads to a better view than the circular path just below it. A couple more spirals or additional height would have added some more excitement to the piece however, as the view above is not that high off the ground.

Native fish in the watershed.

There are several constants to the pier to ensure no matter when you go that you'll have a similar experience to mine. Some are good. Some are bad. The Coast Guard site just to the north actually provides some interesting views of boats of different scale and color. Across the river the Battleship New Jersey also frames the edge of the Delaware River nicely. Old visible pier pilings also remind you that this space used to expand out even further as they jut out at different heights through the surface of the water. The not so pleasant reminders include the din of I-95 in the distance, despite it not being easily visible. It also feels like waterfront development along large parts of the Delaware are a long ways off with hulking industrial silos across the river in New Jersey looking underutilized and forgotten. I hope each redeveloped pier spurs that process along ever more quickly.

There are also several variables that will ensure a different experience each time you visit the pier. The most obvious are clouds and lighting, which either framed the landscape beautifully or made it duller depending on the color and time of day. Tides also remarkably change the space. My first visit was during the highest of tides, which I preferred. It made the small beaches in the park feel accessible. My second visit was during the lowest of tides. It made the water's edge feel like bathtub ring and it exposed a lot more decaying pilings, giving the space a more dystopian feel in a portion of the waterfront where little new identity has been added on top of the old (unlike say, Graffiti Pier to the north).

Coast Guard interest to the north.

The pier is certainly a move in the right direction but perhaps Spruce Street Harbor Park has spoiled me. The buildout of the space did feel at times underwhelming. Natural bulkheads to raise the soil level of the park in certain areas felt temporary. I imagine once the park grows into its skin more and the small native plantings fill out these will no longer feel so in-progress rather than complete. 

High tide.

A locust appears mangrove-like during high tide.

Battleship New Jersey across the river

These will be removed soon.

A watershed extending well above Philadelphia.

"Land Buoy" commemorating immigration.

Wish the spiral went up a bit more.

Pierce the blue.

An impossible panorama... the circle surrounding "Land Buoy"

No filter.

The pier path is built off of existing pilings, of which you can see during low-tide.

The view through the hard turn in the path closer to the entrance of the pier.

The marked pole in the distance notes the tide's ebb and flow.

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Exiting the pier also highlighted what an utter mess the intersection of Delaware and Washington is from a pedestrian or cyclists perspective. My first attempt at crossing the street on the north side of the intersection crossing from the east towards the city had me nearly get run over. Half the cars ignored my presence careening past me through the crosswalk. The other half seemed annoyed they had to slow down. The large scale highway-like nature of these streets really deprioritizes the pedestrian and cylist. This is a car's space and they know it. Even approaching the pier from Washington Avenue is a big challenge since the city has not yet restriped the asphalt and bike lane markings are no longer existent. Closer coordination between the Streets Department to rebalance this intersection would be welcomed, even if it's as temporary as paint or retiming of crosswalks/signals.

Overall however, I look forward to the pier growing into itself as the city does the same for its Delaware River Waterfront.

Continue on the path past Washington Avenue Pier and you'll encounter a series of disused piers, some overgrown, some barren like this one.

A large plot of land between the river and Delaware Avenue.


Last Updated: Thursday, 21 August 2014 @ 10.47
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geoff's picture Geoff Kees Thompson Founder + Urban Planner Website: About the Author:

Other than time away from Philly studying his masters in Urban Planning in the Netherlands, Geoff has lived here since 2005. He founded This Old City to advocate for better public space as a means to economic development, improved public health, lower crime and a more environmentally sustainable future. He currently sits on the Executive Board of SOSNA and is the head volunteer gardener for Saint Mark's Church at 1625 Locust Street.


He is also Chair of The 5th Square PAC, an organization committed to voter education and the funding of progressive urbanist candidates for Philadelphia's future. 


Follow This Old City on Twitter @thisoldcity and Facebook or Geoff individually @geoffkees

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