October 28, 2020

NBBJ unveils waterfront-revitalizing master plan for Chester, Pennsylvania

Less than 20 miles downriver from Philadelphia, where a multi-billion-dollar redevelopment of that city’s Delaware River waterfront is due to kick off next year, another historic Pennsylvania city is slated for a catalytic and long-overdue waterfront makeover that, in this instance, aims to spur economic development, enhance tourism opportunities, and bring together and celebrate a community that hasn’t always had it easy.

The city in question is Chester, the oldest in Pennsylvania. Incorporated in 1682, Chester is a small and once-prosperous city—declared a state-designated financially distressed municipality in 1995, the city is now under receivership—that’s experienced a decidedly disproportionate amount of turbulence over its very long history. Early 20th-century race riots, severe mid-century economic decline, rampant political corruption, and ongoing environmental degradation caused by a predominance of highly polluting industries, namely waste incinerators, located within city limits. Air pollution in Chester, and its impact on public health, has garnered it a reputation as a textbook example of a city where environmental racism runs rampant.

However embattled and bruised, Chester is a dogged and idealistic town and continues to set its sights on a cleaner, safer, and more equitable future. Over the last decade, new investments and improvements have been floated and taken hold, giving the city a modest but much-needed economic kickstart and boost in morale. Perhaps the most dramatic of these city-transforming initiatives is the Riverfront Alliance of Delaware County (RADC)’s Chester Waterfront Master Plan, which formally commenced in 2019 and has just been unveiled by the RADC and Seattle-headquartered architecture and design firm NBBJ.

illustration of waterfront revitalization project in Chester, Pennsylvania
An aerial illustration of the southern section of Chester’s waterfront redevelopment zone. Pictured at the far left is the historic Wharf building. (Courtesy NBBJ)

Over two decades in the making, the multi-phase waterfront revitalization scheme funded through private-public partnerships will encompass an area of roughly 100 acres around Subaru Park, home to professional soccer franchise the Philadelphia Union, that stretches along Chester’s riverfront from Highland Avenue to Norris Street. Per the Philadelphia Business Journal, roughly half of the land in question is owned or controlled by Keystone Sports and Entertainment, the ownership group of the Philadelphia Union.

As the Business Journal explained, Subaru Park, completed in 2010, was meant to be the centerpiece of a larger waterfront transformation that never materialized due to the economic downturn and other factors. Now that transformation is finally poised to move forward. “Pandemic aside, I think the stars are all aligning here for the first time,” RADC board member Jerry Miller told the Business Journal.

As detailed in a press release revealing the highly anticipated master plan, the transformation of Chester’s waterfront district will entail several core strategies: Enhancing community access to and around the city along the East Coast Greenway and State Route 291 through improvements to public transportation as well as pedestrian and cycling infrastructure; improving the existing Barry Bridge Park and riverwalk trail while creating new and inviting public spaces for various forms of community use and recreational activities; embarking on numerous climate resiliency undertakings with a focus on stormwater management/flood protection and the planting of greenery for shading and street-side beautification; and leveraging continued investment from both local and outside sources.

Last, but not least, the master plan calls for a strategy that improves the public perception of Chester by “highlighting and amplifying its rich history, creative opportunity, and civic spirit.”

aerial diagram of a large waterfront
NBBJ’s master plan zeros in a waterfront area of roughly 100 acres centered around Subaru Park. (Courtesy NBBJ)

Despite economically disadvantaged Chester making national headlines over the years for less-than-desirable reasons, NBBJ planning and urban designer Chris Herlich noted that residents have “palpable” pride in their city’s history and that the community is “hungry to grow and become a true economic hub in Pennsylvania and beyond.”

Initial priority public investment areas include street improvements and other infrastructural upgrades, the design of a new park, and the implementation of a public arts program. From there, per the press release, the master plan “seeks to attract private sector support in activations like new office spaces, retail and hospitality venues, and improved sports and entertainment facilities, all strategically designed to complement and build upon existing Chester landmarks and establishments.” In other words, the realization of future phases, which would also include multifamily waterfront housing, a marina, an indoor/outdoor concert venue, and hotels, are contingent on securing development partners.

people crossing a street in a boxy downtown
Engle Street will see numerous infrastructural improvements under the master plan. (Courtesy NBBJ)

The master plan itself was funded in part by the Department of Community and Economic Development, the Philadelphia Union, M&T Charitable Foundation, and others.

Public engagement was key in crafting and finalizing the Chester Waterfront Master Plan, and the above strategies were devised though a multitude of planning sessions led by the RADC and NBBJ that brought together community stakeholders and local residents to discuss specific needs, wants, and desires.

“Chester is a tight-knit community full of character and heart. This plan outlines the strategy to safely connect the riverfront to the city and provide new opportunities for growth and development,” elaborated RADC president Tom Shoemaker in a statement. “It was critical to us to incorporate as much community feedback as possible into the development process, ensuring that this transformation incorporates the goals and aspirations of local residents for the future of the waterfront.”

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