Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk Wows With Views, Underwhelms With Execution
Philadelphia occupies an enviable position of having two rivers that grace our city. Both are quite different in character, and though the Delaware has been the focus of some great interventions in the public space like Spruce Street Harbor Park and Washington Avenue Pier, the Schuylkill has recaptured our attention with today's grand opening of the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk. This long sought after intervention extends the Schuylkill River Trail from Locust Street to the South Street Bridge. 2,000+ feet of cement and steel have been laid with pilings bored deep in the earth. As we noted in a post earlier this year, this Boardwalk has been engineered for durability and should grace our city for a very long time.
Walking the Boardwalk affords some of the most scenic perspectives in all of Philadelphia. The staggered procession of lower to higher buildings of the Philly skyline culminates in the Comcast Center and is on full display from the South Street Bridge. The Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk offers a lower waterline view of that beautiful panorama. As developments like the new FMC tower in University City rise, we imagine the views along this stretch will only become more stunning. Photos that accompany this article were taken as light from a sun setting in the west played off clouds. Light ripples graced the surface of the river. Even a few birds bobbed on the water in the distance. This is a far cry from this section of the Schuylkill just a few years ago. Back then the old South Street Bridge was crumbling into the river below. Decay and disrepair affecting the bridge had become so bad that the north sidewalk was condemned for use by pedestrians. Weight tonnage restrictions were placed on the bridge as chunks of concrete literally fell off into the water and expressway below. Thankfully no one was killed or seriously injured.
Yet today a still new bridge ferries cars, pedestrians and cyclists between Center City and West Philly. Vital new access points to the trail have been added via two connections: to the north a long gradual ramp slopes downward, to the south a series of steps with side bicycle ramps. Both invite users to experience the river in ways that the river trail alone can't quite pull off: floating over the water rather than standing at its edge. For this and this reason alone, the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk can be considered a success.
And still there's a lingering opportunity that feels missed. As unique as the experience is floating over the Schuylkill, nearly every major design element of the Boardwalk is ordinary. This includes the actual form and line of the pier, the color palette, the lighting, the railing and even the fencing leading into the pier. There's a restrictive monotony on the pier itself. Nearly a half a mile of high galvanized railings have firmly been bolted in place. If they are anything, they are sturdy. Unfortunately this sturdiness lacks a designer's touch. There is no finesse or attention to detail. This $18 million dollar intervention is as spartan as they come. As Inga Saffron noted in her article on the space, no architect or landscape architect was consulted for the Boardwalk. It shows.
2,000 feet of pathway slightly widens and narrows as the Boardwalk zigs and zags north to Locust Street. A straight line path would have been too monotonous and so angles break things up but feel unfinished. Curves would have made the Boardwalk feel more organic and flowing like the river itself and less hardware store. This restrictive angular monotony of galvanized railing makes the river feel like it’s been child-proofed from real interaction. The angled sections lack cohesiveness and feel cobbled together. The absence of design is jarring.
The hemmed in and bulkheaded riparian edges of the Schuylkill on either side of this Boardwalk, with the Schuylkill Expressway to the west and the CSX tracks to the east, magnify this effect. The subtle hand of an architect or landscape architect would have softened the feel of the Boardwalk. Instead it feels like nothing more than a people funnel. Thankfully wider path sections allow one to get out of the way of pedestrian and bicycle traffic, marvel at the city views, and rest.
Yet these wider sections lack magnetism or anything more than the most basic of amenities. The 15 or so benches on the Boardwalk’s 2,000 foot span are painfully basic. Black metal tubes, they are completely forgettable and may not fare well in the heat of summer sun. Here is where a landscape architect's touch would have been welcomed.
Since the Boardwalk was built new, all manner of design opportunities were available including landscaping. One of the amenities that makes the trail to the north enjoyable is the mix of hardscaping and plantings. Creating space for built in planters to host small trees, shrubs and perennials on the Boardwalk itself would have added a much needed green touch to this half mile of cement and steel in an area of the Schuylkill River more canal-like than any other section.
Other design follies include the use of all but the most ordinary of chain-link fencing to hem the trail entrances off from the CSX tracks. This fencing appears misplaced next to the sturdy, over-engineered bridge railing along the Boardwalk. We can only hope it is temporary. Nearly any fencing would be better than galvanized chain-link.
Lighting design is also important for safe and attractive public space. Overhead LED street lights along the Boardwalk, though efficient each with their own solar panel, obstruct views of the skyline. Lighting built into railing, like the Kieran Timberlake stairs leading down below City Hall at the new Dilworth Plaza, would have been welcomed here. A designer would have caught these details.
A design professional would have also picked up on how little the current Boardwalk offers in the way of amenities. Nearly a half mile of path includes about 15 benches, several trashcans and the most basic of lighting schemes. That's it. The only shading provided is underneath the South Street Bridge itself. Lack of shade may very well limit the Boardwalk as a practical or enjoyable space in the heat of summer. Magnifying this concern, there are no potable water sources on the bridge and therefore no water fountains.
Though views of the city impress, the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk leaves expectation not fulfillment. Today is the grand opening of a much sought after new connection to our river. It feels like an engineer’s proof of concept, not a thoughtful public space.