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History Reborn
Applied Ecological Services gives historic Philly pier new life.
Pier 53 includes a sculptural viewing tower (below) and and an elevated boardwalk.
Douglas Bovitt

Much of Philadelphia’s past can be traced through Pier 53 in the Delaware River. The pier was used for ship building during the Revolutionary War, began welcoming immigrants to the country in the late 19th century, and was used as a municipal pier after that. Much of that history was wiped clean when a fire ripped across the pier in the 1960s. In the decades since, it fell prey to the elements. Brush grew across its top and the water ate away at its pilings. But, with Philadelphia actively reclaiming its waterfront, Pier 53, now known as the Washington Avenue Pier, has been reborn and written into the city’s next chapter.

The new Pier 53 is an extension of the one-acre Washington Avenue Green project, which opened in 2010—one of the first green spaces built alongside the river in years. The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC), a non-profit leading the city’s waterfront transformation, spearheaded both projects. In 2011, DRWC released a master plan to transform six miles of Philly’s Central Delaware River with new open space and development. That master plan was led by PennPraxis and adopted by the City Council in 2012.

Courtesy applied ecological services

For the $2.15 million Washington Avenue Pier project, DRWC laid out three main goals: “provide public access to the river, involve the community in meaningful educational ways, and improve the environmental health of the river.” Despite the pier’s relatively small size, restoring it was not simple or straightforward given its dilapidated condition. “Considering how little it is, it is the most complex project I’ve worked on, from the structure, to the ecology, to the public amenities,” said Tracey Cohen of Applied Ecological Services (AES), which served as the landscape architect for the project.

The observation tower.
Douglas Bovitt

The first task was stopping the pier from continuing to fall into the river. AES used hard and soft elements to stabilize the main structure. Encapsulated soil packets called “soil lifts” were used to create a steady natural edge that promotes growth. Those were supported by concrete shelves that also help form fish habitats.

AES separated the Washington Avenue Pier into a few distinct environments that react to specific environmental conditions. There are shrubs and high grasses at the windy end, beaches along the edges, and a small forest at the shore. “We are trying to put in plant communities that work with the hydrology,” said Cohen. The goal is to create a natural space that can survive an unpredictable urban environment. DRWC said it will monitor the ecological impact of the plantings at the pier over the next two years to see how they could be replicated elsewhere on the river. A crushed-stone path leads visitors through the pier’s microhabitats and a boardwalk fronts the water.

And at the end of the pier is a 55-foot-tall twisting, steel sculpture called “Land Buoy” with a 16-foot-high viewing deck by local artist Jody Pinto. It is designed to honor the pier’s history and the immigrants who crossed it to enter the country.

Henry Melcher