Conceptual Design of Olde Richmond, Philadelphia: Olde Richmond Waterfront District

By Jo Kwon and Mariah Wozniak


The Delaware River has played a vital role in Philadelphia’s economic development since the City’s inception as goods were transported via the River’s piers, wharfs, and canals to faraway places (Philadelphia2035 2011, 4). Access to the River provided an avenue to establish trade routes and enable the manufacturing economies that propelled Philadelphia into manufacturing prominence. However, Philadelphia neighborhoods that once prospered alongside their booming industries, and the Delaware River, declined as manufacturing slowed following WWII (Adams 1991, 14). As a result, many working-class neighborhoods in North Philadelphia, including Olde Richmond, experienced disinvestment, abandonment, and increased crime rates. 

Construction of the Vine Street Expressway in the late 1950s greatly disrupted connectivity between Center City and North Philadelphia (Philadelphia2035 2011). Additionally, as seen in Figure 1 below, construction of the Delaware Expressway (I-95) bisected Olde Richmond and directly contributed to disconnectivity within the neighborhood itself. Despite Olde Richmond’s location adjacent to the Delaware River, its waterfront remains largely undeveloped. At present, the area consists of mostly vacant land dotted with scant commercial buildings and privately held areas such as Graffiti Pier. In contrast to the existing land use, we propose a conceptual redesign for Olde Richmond, in an area we termed Olde Richmond Waterfront District (ORWD), that offers a connected city-dwelling experience. 

Figure 1: Olde Richmond Neighborhood, Philadelphia, PA Photo Credit: Google Maps

Challenges & Opportunities

The Delaware Expressway (I-95) exists as a present challenge for development in Olde Richmond. The heavily traveled highway impedes pedestrian mobility within the neighborhood and poses significant threats to pedestrian safety. In addition, the existence and positioning of I-95 has limited redevelopment projects in Olde Richmond beyond the multi-lane roadway. This is due, at least in part, to the disruption it causes to the urban fabric and classic grid street pattern (Condon 2010, 28).

In recent years, Philadelphia has redeveloped several of its public and open spaces near Center City including Love Park, Dilworth Plaza, and Franklin Square. The City has also focused efforts on revitalizing its waterfronts into viable pedestrian uses. Although North Philadelphia contains ample available riverfront along the Delaware River, there are few designated waterfront amenities available to residents in this area of the City. However, in recognition of this disparity, within its Philadelphia2035 CityWide Vision Plan, Philadelphia outlined the need to increase equitable access to open-space resources and complete, expand, and connect watershed parks and trails along the Delaware River (Philadelphia2035 2011, 136-137). Philadelphia2035 specifically outlines Olde Richmond’s waterfront as a target area for redevelopment and completion of a “Delaware Waterfront Trail” as part of a citywide network of trails (Philadelphia2035 2011, 136-140).

In addition to Philadelphia2035’s vision to expand access to waterfronts and neighborhood parks and recreation, and in order to achieve the plan’s goal to elevate public demand for good design in the public realm, our chosen site rectifies its largely abandoned and disconnected state by improving its connectivity and implementing an interconnected street system similar to that of greater Philadelphia (Condon 2010, 39). In addition to the area’s tendency toward a linked system of natural areas and parks, because the selected site is largely vacant, there is vast opportunity to implement Condon’s rules for sustainable design including mixed use development, diversifying housing types, co-location of jobs and homes, and green infrastructure (Condon 2010, 14-15). 

Proposed Solution

Figure 2: Proposed Design Solution for Olde Richmond Waterfront District

Connectivity & Complete Streets

To address the disconnectivity and lack of infrastructure that presently plague the area proposed for the ORWD, we emphasized human-scaled development within our design. Our conceptual design is predicated on “burying” the Delaware Expressway (I-95) and establishing an interconnected grid pattern, with a heavy emphasis on small blocks, for the ORWD. As Leon Krier states, “[t]he building block is either the instrument to form streets and squares, or it results from a pattern of streets and squares” (Krier 1984, 44). Careful consideration of the building blocks, and their orientation served as the foundation of our design. As seen in Figure 2 above, the overall, streets, squares, buildings, and public spaces were situated according to our proposed urban grid arrangement.

Drawing inspiration from the urban fabric of other areas of Philadelphia, the block dimensions on the west side of the design are similar in size and pattern to the Washington Square West neighborhood. The block dimensions on the east side of the proposed ORWD are reminiscent of the northwest portion of Olde Richmond that borders I-95 and the adjacent Fishtown neighborhood. The building sizes are varied with a mixture of housing types including Philadelphia’s notable row houses and sizable high-density apartment developments. The proposed ORWD boasts 45 ft complete streets which include a one-way car lane, a parking lane, sidewalks, and a bike lane. The car and parking lanes are each 8-foot, bike lanes are 5-foot, and sidewalks are a minimum of 12-foot in width throughout the entire district.

Mixed-Use Neighborhood

There are three primary types of housing stock in Olde Richmond Waterfront District: mixed-use buildings with residential areas from second to the fifth floor, row houses, and large high-density apartment buildings. Although the entire district is intended for mixed-use, the west side of the district consists of slightly larger blocks apt for business and commercial spaces. The east side of ORWD offers smaller lots with traditional residential row houses. The west side includes urban blocks with buildings similar to those in Center City with first floor commercial spaces, like restaurants and retail shops, and residential uses claiming the second to fifth floors. In addition, the high-density apartment buildings are designed to help alleviate Philadelphia’s shortage of affordable housing. We strongly suggest at least 50% of the units within these buildings are designated as affordable. The emphasis on mixed-use buildings and varying housing types throughout the district propels social and cultural complexity within ORWD.

Parks and ORWD Perimeter Trail

Figure 3: Aerial View of Graffiti Pier and Surrounding Public & Greenspaces

As seen in Figure 3 above, the Olde Richmond Waterfront District has various parks, including large squares, pocket parks incorporated into many blocks, and parks near the greenway. The large parks include fountains and recreational space in alignment with Philadelphia’s original Franklin, Logan, Penn, Washington, and Rittenhouse squares. The pocket parks in the blocks are situated throughout the district serve as “the web of green spaces and green links (Bacon 1976, 1733)” to create a pattern of connectivity with larger parks and the district’s perimeter trail. The ORWD Perimeter Trail is a key component in the ORWD, as it encompasses the entirety of the proposed district’s area. This 20-foot wide multi-use trail is made of sustainable and environmentally friendly material and serves as one of the main recreational amenities the ORWD. This trail is designed to meet the goals of developing a system of trails connecting across Philadelphia while providing interconnectivity to outdoor recreational spaces (Philadelphia2035 2011, 136-140). Various public and greenspaces, including ballparks, dog parks, apple tree parks, etc. are situated along the trail. The trail is elevated on the northern perimeter to provide for pedestrian safety and traffic flow of the underlying streets.

Natural Preservation & Stormwater Management

Consideration of the natural environment is necessary when redeveloping an area near a resource such as the Delaware River. The southwest portion of the ORWD, denoted in a brownish-green hue, along the Delaware River, maintains the natural area for ecological purposes and wildlife preservation. Creating a space to support biodiversity connects the urbanized area to the natural environment. Aside from transforming the southeast portion into ballparks and sport courts, which are specifically designed to capture and hold rainwater and serve as stormwater management within the ORWD, the rest of this portion of the proposed development is designated for natural preservation. The green buffer exists adjacent to the river to prevent flooding and for sustainable management of regional water resources (Farr 2008, 175). The inclusion of these natural preservation areas and unique BMPs help manage runoff from impermeable surfaces within the district and limit pollutants entering the waterways to the river.

Public Spaces

Thoughtful provision of public spaces is an integral component of the placemaking within the Olde Richmond Waterfront District. As seen in Figure 4 below, specific attention to Carmona’s objectives for public space, including character, ease of movement, and adaptability, influenced the public spaces within the district (Carmona et al. 2003, 9). The public spaces within the ORWD contain unique and colorful mural-type graffiti designs as a homage to the history and cultural significance of Graffiti Pier to Philadelphia and the people of the surrounding neighborhoods. Not only does this provide aesthetic appeal and linkages throughout, but it also contributes to the district’s past and present identity. In addition, public spaces are creatively integrated into the interconnected street network of the district. The ORWD perimeter trail is also designed to be accessible from virtually any point in the district. Lastly, areas across the district denoted in pink designate areas intended for pop-up shops, snack stands, bars, and other semi-permanent establishments. This type of planning and design allows for such spaces to change seasonally with ease. This also provides flexibility as retail and commercial landscape changes across the United States.

Figure 4: A Snapshot of Public Spaces within ORWD

To facilitate human interaction and experiences within the district, we integrated Graffiti Pier, the Balboa Building, and ORWD Amphitheater into ORWD’s design. Graffiti Pier incorporates several attractions that contribute to the quality of the public realm within the Olde Richmond Waterfront District (Carmona et al. 2003, 9). Such attractions include another Robert Indiana “LOVE” statue to add to Philadelphia’s collection. This statue is similar in size and scale to the existing statue in Center City’s Love Park. Graffiti Pier also boasts one of the large fountains within the district as well as unique hard and soft scaping. Drawing inspiration from Philadelphia’s Race Street Pier, Graffiti Pier provides ample space for public gatherings such as outdoor yoga or summer movie programs, all interconnected with 20-foot walking paths. The pinnacle of Graffiti Pier, however, is a 70-foot solar-powered Ferris wheel ideal for taking in views of the Delaware River, Ben Franklin Bridge, the Philadelphia Skyline, and Olde Richmond.

Figure 5: Detailed Illustration of Graffiti Pier

The Balboa Building is an ode to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rocky Steps. The building serves as administrative offices for the district as well as an event venue for weddings and galas. Inclusion of this building, and its familiar elements, provide interesting imagery within the district as well as multi-level spaces for visitors to enjoy and interact with. The building contributes to the diversity of the overall district as it offers pedestrians and visitors with variety and choice. The ORWD Amphitheater not only provides a public gathering area for concerts and other entertainment, but it also doubles as a public amenity when events are not scheduled. The amphitheater includes several softscape areas and designated hard-scape areas for pop-up commercial shops and offerings.


Olde Richmond Waterfront District offers Philadelphians a space to live, work, and enjoy leisure time. Our proposed design offers an equilibrium of work and living and aligns with several of Philadelphia2035’s goals (Krier 1984). This is made possible by continuing Philadelphia’s classic grid pattern into the ORWD area, encouraging mixed-use development, prioritizing natural resource preservation and stormwater management, and thoughtful provision of public spaces. Mixed-use neighborhoods help address housing issues within the City and create an environment for thriving commerce while newly re-imagined green and public spaces promote viable, healthy neighborhoods for the City’s long-term.

About the Authors:

Jo Kwon is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of City and Regional Planning. She hopes to interweave various data sets and narratives of housing and communities with new digital technologies. With a background in Statistics and English Literature, she received her M.A. in Computational Media at Duke University. In her free time, she enjoys watching indie movies, and going to live performances.

Mariah Wozniak is a second-year master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning, specializing in land use and environmental planning. Her research interests include historic preservation, urban design, and the intersection of planning and public education provision. She received her undergraduate degree in Political Science and Public & Urban Affairs from Virginia Tech. She enjoys spending time at the beach, cooking, and admiring residential architecture.

Adams, C.1991. Philadelphia: Neighborhoods, Division, and Conflict in a Postindustrial City. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

Carmona, Matthew et al. 2003. Public Places – Urban Spaces Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Condon, Patrick M. 2010. Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities. Washington: Island Press.

Krier, Leon. July/August 1984. “Urban Components.” Architectural Design 54: 43-49.

Melanie Simmons, Kathy Baughmann McLeod, and Jason Hight, “Healthy Neighborhoods;” Jim Patchett and Tom Price “Stormwater Systems” in Douglas Farr, Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature (Wiley & Sons, 2008): 148-150, 175-181.

“Philadelphia2035: Citywide Vision.” 2011. Philadelphia City Planning Commission. Philadelphia, PA.

Featured Image: Proposed Design Solution for Olde Richmond Waterfront District