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The Schuylkill River Park reached a quiet milestone yesterday -- quiet because the pile driver that has banged steel into the riverbed for the last two months was still so that a crowd could celebrate a project that has been in the planning stages for more than 300 years.
That's right, three centuries. No less than William Penn, Philadelphia's founder, first suggested a green space along the river that winds through the city's backyard, and a riverfront park has been a gleam in other municipal officials' eyes since then.
That wait is finally nearing an end, city, state, and federal officials said yesterday.
"This is going to be a great park," said Mayor Rendell, speaking to about 100 people sitting in the shade where the Walnut Street bridge passes over the river to University City. "It's going to be great for the quality of life in our city."
It looks great on paper -- a winding pedestrian and bicycle path costing more than $10 million that will link the Art Museum area with the lower reaches of Center City. Plans call for a swath of brick, concrete and decorative lights cutting through an area now dotted with hardwood saplings and thick bramble where people walk dogs and the homeless gather after dark.
Since March, the area near the bridge has hosted construction crews and the pile driver, which has been banging steel beams into the river. The beams will form a bulkhead supporting the walkway.
"We're very excited about the construction," said John Randolph, the executive director of the Schuylkill River Development Council, which is overseeing the project. "The bulkhead... represents a big step toward the completion of the park."
Not only Penn thought the river's banks would make a good park. Planners early this century came out in favor of a waterfront park along the river, which bubbles to life in Berks County and twists about 120 miles before merging with the Delaware River in South Philadelphia.
And, in 1947, city planner Ed Bacon put a waterfront park in his plan for the city's future development. Twenty years later, the Fairmount Park Commission got officially involved, presenting its plan for a waterfront public space.
Those visions are finally coming true, said William Mifflin, the park commission's executive director.
"The baton has been passed -- to us, to complete the dream," Mifflin said yesterday.
When completed next year, the project will stretch 1.3 miles along the river's east bank, from the Fairmount Water Works behind the Art Museum to Spruce Street. At that point, the new park will connect with an older park, a three-block segment of waterfront space finished in 1988.
The entire project will allow pedestrians to reach the river from bridges at Walnut, Chestnut and Market Streets, plus walk to the Schuylkill's edge from the span at John F. Kennedy Boulevard. Blueprints also call for docks that would allow ferries to leave downtown for Bartrams' Garden, the Water Works, and Fort Mifflin.
Putting in a bulkhead, new paths and stairways will cost $8.9 million -- a combination of almost $7 million in federal transportation funds, plus more than $1.7 million in city money. Corporate sponsers have added $200,000. State and private sources also have contributed nearly $1.4 million to run the park and administer its programs.
The money will be well-spent, said Steve Brockelman, a senior associate for the Pennsylvania Economy League Inc. The nonprofit research and consulting organization conducted a study of the park's potential economic impact, and the bottom line looked good, Brockelman said yesterday.
"We wanted to look at different ways this park will bring benefits to the city," he said. "In many ways, it [benefits] exceeds the money spent."
Construction should generate about $20 million in related business in the area, the league concluded. And property values near the park should increase by an average of 5 percent -- a spike of more than $9 million in total area property values, analysts concluded.
In addition, said Brockelman, the park brings intangibles to the area -- more recreational opportunities, better access to Center City from the river, and more space along the Schuylkill for late-evening handholding and early-morning strolls.
The tract already is good for walks, said George Stuart, a 25-year-old Center City resident who routinely uses the gravel path running along the river to walk his two dogs, Lakeland the dalmation and Kelly the mutt.
Yesterday, he paused, pooches in tow, to watch the suited crowd applaud a speaker.
"I sort of like it the way it is, because it's one of the few places where I can walk the dogs," said Stuart, who works at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
Then he paused while his dogs sniffed the air. "I hope people support it," he said. "Whatever they put here."
By Mark Davis
Philadelphia Inquirer, May 29, 1997
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