Working Both Sides of the River

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Class of ’75 | Standing in his Philadelphia office just south of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, Tom Corcoran WG’75 walks over to a corner window and gazes across the Delaware River into New Jersey, a nostalgic smile spreading across his face. As the former head of the Cooper’s Ferry Development Association (CFDA), Corcoran spent the first 25 years of his career transforming the Camden waterfront into an attractive destination, complete with an aquarium, baseball stadium, and popular amphitheater. Now, as the president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC), he’s been tasked with a nearly identical job—this time on the other side of the river.

“I can look out my window and see my old office and see some of the projects I did over there,” Corcoran says. “It’s one of those classic paradigm shifts—you know, What’s different about this picture?

“I had planned to finish my career in Camden,” admits Corcoran, who in 1984 founded the CFDA as a private, nonprofit corporation that used public subsidies and worked alongside the city’s government to bolster a waterfront that was “literally just vacant and abandoned factories.” But there were frustrations that came with the job. Even though he helped attract about $600 million in investment to turn the waterfront into a place that people flock to (despite some initial skepticism), the development never flowed into the city’s beleaguered downtown and its poverty-stricken neighborhoods—largely because of the crime and government corruption that continue to plague Camden.

“I still believe the city is going to come back some day; it has too much going for it,” Corcoran says. “The biggest problem is that three of the last six mayors I worked for went to jail—which doesn’t make for real good continuity in government.”

After enjoying his interview with the DRWC’s “more engaged, harder-working” executive board, Corcoran decided to venture across the river in 2009. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter W’79, who appointed him, said he was “very excited” that, after an extensive search involving more than 100 highly qualified individuals in the US and around the world, they had finally “found the perfect candidate right across the Delaware River.”

Earlier that year, Nutter turned what had been the Penn’s Landing Corporation into the DRWC on the recommendation of Penn Praxis, the applied-research arm of Penn’s School of Design that had been hired by the city to create a master plan for the mostly abandoned seven-mile stretch along the Delaware River. According to Corcoran, the ambitious Penn Praxis plan, led by Harris Steinberg C’78 GAr’82, convinced a lot of people that the city’s eastern waterfront could finally rise above decades of neglect and longstanding political squabbles. [“Gazetteer,” Jan|Feb 2008.]

“It created a lot of excitement,” Corcoran says. “Most importantly, it made people feel that they had a right to claim ownership over the river.”

Using that plan as a guide, Corcoran quickly saw that, as the president of the new, publicly funded DRWC, he was in charge of coordinating the redevelopment of the entire stretch of waterfront from Allegheny Avenue in the north to Oregon Avenue in the south. This was a stark change from previous administrations that had focused almost entirely on Penn’s Landing, which borders the touristy Old City neighborhood and South Street.

“Various mayors have tried to do something at Penn’s Landing, and none of [their efforts] have come to pass,” Corcoran says. “This time we think it’s going to be very different. The board and I agreed that for the first four years at least, we would just do small projects, hit singles and doubles, advance the runners and score runs. And over time, we would be able to build credibility, to the point where we would be able to take on some larger-scale projects. In the past, everyone swung for the fences and tried to hit a home run their first time up at bat.”

The home-run project still involves finding a way to connect Old City to Penn’s Landing, which is currently cut off from the rest of the city by Columbus Boulevard and I-95, the eight-lane highway that Corcoran calls “the biggest physical challenge” to any waterfront plans. But the DRWC has already been successfully hitting singles and doubles, led by the 2010 opening of the award-winning Race Street Pier, situated underneath the Ben Franklin Bridge and next door to Corcoran’s office.

“That project was important because it was the first thing out of the box we were going to build,” says Corcoran, who hired James Corner Field Operations, headed by James Corner GFA’86 GLA’86 [“The Transformer,” Nov|Dec 2012], to design Race Street Pier. “We really wanted it to be highly designed and set the standard for future development.”

The DRWC also recently unveiled Spruce Street Harbor Park, a summer pop-up park with a boardwalk, urban beach, floating barges, even a food truck offering fare by legendary restaurateur Jose Garces. Other projects in the pipeline include an “extraordinary” waterfront park near Washington Avenue that involves restoring Pier 53, where immigrants came to Philadelphia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Part of the restoration, which was slated to be completed by the end of the summer, includes developing an app that allows people to discover when their ancestors arrived on that pier and on what ship.

Both Race Street Pier and Pier 53 were part of the DRWC’s 25-year master plan, which was completed in 2012. “There has never been one done for the waterfront before,” says Corcoran, opening up a slideshow on his computer to show off the major aspects of the plan. It includes creating a trail that stretches along the entire waterfront, building public parks every half-mile, working with private developers, and partnering with all 10 adjacent neighborhoods to better connect the waterfront back to the city.

That last goal has always been viewed as the most daunting challenge because of I-95. But what many people didn’t realize is that there are 34 streets that go beneath the interstate to get to the water. Since walking through those underpasses can be, in Corcoran’s words, a “pretty frightening experience,” the DRWC has targeted nine streets, headlined by Race and Spring Garden, for significant improvements, by using creative lighting and streetscaping to make them feel safer. To many people’s surprise, it’s working.

“There’s a high degree of skepticism in general, which actually makes it a little bit easier to work,” Corcoran said. “Because when you actually announce you’re going to do something and you build it and you open it, people say, ‘Wow, how did that happen?’”

There are still skeptics when it comes to Penn’s Landing, but Corcoran is confident that the current plans to build an eight-acre plaza above I-95 and Columbus Boulevard and between Walnut and Chestnut streets —so that “once people get to Front Street, they will feel like they’re at the waterfront”—are both architecturally compelling and economically feasible.

“It’s a transformative project,” he says. “It will be Philadelphia’s next great public square, like Rittenhouse or Washington. And we think it will finally unlock the development potential and attract private development. So we’re going to be working really hard to put this together. We don’t want this to be another plan that sits on a shelf years from now and people say, ‘What ever happened to that plan?’”

While the Penn’s Landing design—created by the landscape-architecture and planning firm Hargreaves Associates—has been well received after being unveiled last October, the hard part will be raising the $250 million needed for the project, which will be done through federal, state, local, and philanthropic funding and could take up to two years. From there, Corcoran estimates it will take about five years to build. But no matter how long it takes, the 69-year-old Corcoran—who has no plans to retire any time soon—is ready to lead the charge into a new age for a waterfront that once was the center of commerce in Philadelphia before the traditional smokestack industry moved on and left the area barren.

“What is most inspiring about him is his quiet tenacity,” says Chuck Bragitikos W’87, a developer who worked alongside Corcoran on projects in Camden [“Alumni Profiles,” Jul|Aug 2012]. “He comes across as a very gentle soul—which he is. But once he puts his mind to something, he’s unrelenting.”

“Some things that other people view as impossible obstacles, you can’t let them stop you,” says Corcoran. “You just have to deal with it and make it happen.”

—Dave Zeitlin C’03
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