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To Hook Investors, Philly Baits The Waterfront With Low-Cost Parks

Like a lot of cities, Philadelphia has tried and failed to lure big developers and megaprojects to turn its decaying waterfront into a destination. Now, the nonprofit that manages the waterfront is doing something different.

It's starting small — and cheap.

This formerly desolate stretch of the Delaware River waterfront is now home to several low-cost, seasonal parks that are attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors. The group's latest waterfront project is a park with a roller skating rink and a lodge decorated with fishing poles, picnic tables, nautical blue couches.

"We're using old cargo containers, which honestly aren't that expensive to procure," says Jodie Milkman, the vice president of communications and programming for the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. "This space is populated by trees and tree stumps and wood chips."

Nearby, there's another harbor park filled with hammocks, arcade games and food and beer vendors.

Both parks each cost less than $1 million to build. Visitors don't seem to mind — or even realize — the waterfront parks were made on the cheap.

"It seems like a place where you might have to pay to get in, but it's free and everyone can access it," says Caya Simonsen as she lies in one of the free hammocks at the harbor park. She says the park actually feels kind of fancy to her.

The parks draw a diverse crowd. "Folks looked like investment bankers, folks looked like they were walking through with their families, young people on skateboards," says Lou Valente, who works on park-related projects for the state of New Jersey. He visited the harbor park last year for inspiration.

The boardwalk at Spruce Street Harbor Park is one of many attractions drawing visitors along the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia.
Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY
The boardwalk at Spruce Street Harbor Park is one of many attractions drawing visitors along the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia.

When it opened last year, the Spruce Street Harbor Park brought in half a million people – five times as many as planners expected. Even more people showed up this year.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation also runs a wintertime park with an ice rink and a lodge.

CEO Tom Corcoran says the parks are a way to get people used to coming down to the river — "and then once they do, and the time comes for the public sector to invest more," he says, "you have a built in political support system of people who want to see great things happen on their waterfront."

The group hopes those people will support the city's $250 million waterfront master plan and show developers who bring tax dollars, jobs and housing that it's worth building on the river.

Marielle Segarra is a reporter for Keystone Crossroads, a statewide public media initiative reporting on the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities.

Copyright 2021 WHYY. To see more, visit WHYY.

Marielle Segarra was WHYY's Keystone Crossroads reporter. She reported for the multi-station partnership on urban policy, crumbling infrastructure and how distressed Pennsylvania cities are bouncing back. As a freelance radio reporter, her stories have also aired on Latino USA, WNYC, WBUR and other NPR member stations.