Saturday, January 10, 2015

Petty Island - The 2015 Better Philadelphia Competition

                During the fall of 2014 I joined a team to compete in The 2014 Better Philadelphia Design Competition.  The completion was hosted by the Philadelphia Center for Architecture and founded in 2006 in memory of Ed Bacon.  The subject of this year’s competition was a reimagining of the future of  Petty Island and the neighboring Philadelphia coastline to the north.  (See below for a map of the official boundaries.)  The competition called for the following elements to be included in design proposals: Site Programming, Climate Change, Transportation & Access, and Environmental Sustainability.

Above: The official site design boundaries.  The north side of the shoreline falls within Philadelphia and the southern site of Petty Island closely borders Camden, NJ. (Map from official contest webpage.)

Petty Island is a small land mass just north of the Camden on the Delaware River. It is thought to be the place where Captain Blackbeard docked when visiting Philadelphia.  It served as a haven of scum and villainy outside of the privy of the Quaker ruled city and hosted unsavory activities such as gambling, dueling, and slave trade during the 18th century.  The City Paper had a pretty fascinating cover article in 2010 about the history of the island which can be found here.

As the 20th century progressed it eventually came into the ownership of CITGO, and correspondingly Hugo Chavez and was used for fuel storage.  However, in the last couple of decades, the Venezuelan government has been looking to turn over the land on the condition that an environmental element be included in future plans.

The island has been a nesting ground for bald eagles have nested on the island. The years of industrial use on the site have left brownfield contaminants and as a result of both of these ecological and industrial factors development of the site is a complicated proposal.  As a group we sought to draw on ecology, and industry as the theme characteristic of the area's future.

Our team featured four urban designers and myself.  My work on the projected focused on creating base maps in GIS as needed to support various aspects of the design process. and also serve as a subject matter expert on the background of the surrounding area, neighborhoods, political history and landscape, and other local aspects of importance. It was a great opportunity as a non-designer to contribute ideas in the process as well.

Below are a series of base maps I created in support of design efforts.

The first of the base maps we needed was a quick map of the buildings or parcels.
(Philadelphia provides data on the actual buildings, while NJ/Camden only provided parcel data.)

A land use map was also needed early on in the process.  Our Camden site focused on conservation and ecology, while the Philadelphia side to the north aimed to create building and transportation development.  The map created was a quick guide intended to accommodate the different needs for each site.

Our designers also wanted to look at the potential flood plains to incorporate into their design.
The map above shows the 100 year floodplain per FEMA.

Finally, we wanted to integrate our site into the existing rail, bike and road transportation infrastructure.  

Petty island holds a couple densely forested areas that have served as bird sanctuaries along the river. We loved the idea of creating 3 different levels of ecological preservation and divided the island into 3 areas:  The concrete paved areas would hold most of our structures and programming, the forested areas serve as protected sites and research areas, and the remaining area served as restoration site for some active use and brownfield remediation.

The Philadelphia side of the boundary in our estimation called for a more dense urban development that incorporated ecological features.  We felt this would be an appropriate way to develop the Philadelphia portion of the design area that connected the nearby neighborhoods with their waterfront by creating critical mass of residence and commercial uses along the shore.

Of the particular features, we thought that buildings on petty island constructed of shipping containers would provide a functional advantage since these could be reconfigured regularly to accommodate different programming uses on the site.  The aesthetic appeal of this type of building material provided a quality that reflected the industrial past of the island.  The island could house university ecology programs, research and active efforts for remediation.

The Delaware River also happens to be undergoing dredging activities at this time and we discovered from advising with an ecological expert that the dredge spoils could be used to cap contaminants in the soil.  We therefore planned to focus on using this approach to remediate the northeastern shore of the island.  Other activities incorporated into the site included a bike path and boardwalk along the perimeter, and a pedestrian bridge that connected the site into the greater context of Camden's bike and rail network.  We discussed creative reuse of the storage tanks as a possible graffiti park that could open up the site for a broader array of visitors and artists.

Below is a copy of the final board we submitted to the judges.  The board itself was very large so the original file was condensed to allow it to display here without issues.

The top half illustrates the broad design and develop concepts that we held for the sites.

The bottom half of the board  illustrates (from left to right) our concept of ecological preservation and a nod to the industrial past of the area. Second it shows the remediation plan which included leveraging dredging activity and the creation of wetlands within the flood plain.  Finally we envisioned a research site and programming space within a network of buildings that could be reconfigured based on use.

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