With several key trails in the works and the monumental Delaware and Richmond Power Stations drawing renewed interest from imaginative designers and planners, the north Delaware waterfront has begun to reemerge–albeit quietly and mostly below radar–in the seemingly endless grappling with the city’s principal riverbank.
But while several trail and park projects, including sections of the East Coast Greenway and Lardner’s Point Park, have begun to transform small sections of the fragmented landscape, the 2009 rezoning of large, privately held former industrial parcels has so far failed to result in any substantial new real estate development.
Blessed with transportation access and vistas of the Delaware River and wooded New Jersey lands, it was here that waterfront planning initiatives beyond Penn’s Landing first took off in the region. In the 1980s, a pair of disparate City Planning Commission studies brought to the fore the idea of transforming the riverfront from an abandoned industrial relic into a public amenity.
And by 2001, US Representative Robert Borski’s push to reclaim the waterfront led to the North Delaware Riverfront Master Plan by the landscape architecture firm Field Operations, the most sweeping of the plans thus far, calling for the redevelopment of 11 miles and 3,500 acres of waterfront land north of Penn Treaty Park to Glen Foerd Estate in Torresdale.
The plan was an important one; to this day, its principles of creating mixed-use neighborhoods with a system of trails and open spaces along the waterfront continue to guide planning and investment efforts.
With interest in bringing trail and park proposals to reality, in 2005, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council led the effort to create the follow-up North Delaware Riverfront Greenway Master Plan and Cost Benefit Analysis, which spelled out several scenarios for park development, defined an implementation program, and created trail and park design guidelines.
The North Delaware Greenway (as it was now called) was identified as an important section of the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000 mile multi-modal trail that will eventually extend from Maine to Florida. In 2006, the Delaware River City Corporation was established to spearhead the creation of the North Delaware Greenway and ensure Philly was doing its part in building the larger East Coast Greenway.
By 2009, the DRCC understood exactly where to focus greenway development efforts and what the weak links were. Planners completed the North Delaware Greenway Gaps Feasibility Study to help advance DRCC’s efforts by evaluating the feasibility of potential alignments through challenging, mostly privately owned, sections of the waterfront.
While activity progressed on greenways, the City Planning Commission initiated the rezoning of a number of large parcels to encourage development and investment. “They were re-zoned to make way for high density, mixed-use development,” says district planner Ian Litwin, adding that at sites like the former Philadelphia Coke and Dodge Steel planners “encouraged particularly high residential densities as an incentive for developers” to offset necessary environmental remediation constraints.
But as the economy reeled from recession, planning efforts for private development became stuck. With the city unable to front the bill for cleanup costs, private developers shied away. “Every parcel is still vacant,” says Litwin.
There are myriad reasons why the mixed-use environment envisioned in 2001 has yet to come to fruition over 10 years later, among them suggests Litwin, the high financial costs associated with brownfield redevelopment as well as the uncertainty brought to the waterfront by the impending redesign of Interstate 95.
The down real estate market has played the most obvious role. In 2007, some 20 towers and 5,000 condominium units were on the drawing tables for the waterfront, proposed to line the Delaware from Port Richmond to Queen Village. But when the condo boom that defined the middle of the last decade ended, so too did the City’s rush to waterfront living.
Three of the five planned towers at Waterfront Square north of Spring Garden Street were built. The first two, built in 2005-06, sold briskly. But the units in the third tower, completed in 2009, did not. Sales have been so poor that 119 of the units went up for sheriff’s sale earlier this year, indicating a continued weak market for waterfront condos and giving reason for lenders not to finance such projects, especially those on the North Delaware, an area likely seen as more risky to develop than parcels closer to Center City.
One of obstacles to residential and mixed-use development on the north waterfront is the fragmentation of land and neighborhoods. Riverfront parcels are disconnected, says real estate broker Frank DeFazio, of Prudential, Fox & Roach Realtors. DeFazio, who focuses on condominium sales at Waterfront Square and elsewhere on the central Delaware, says that the only way residential development along the north Delaware could be successful in the near term is if developers create “mini villages” complete with urban amenities.
But as market tastes have shifted away from disconnected autocentric developments like Waterfront Square toward pedestrian-friendly and more authentic neighborhood living, these one-off developments become harder to rationalize. Moreover, DeFazio says, the north waterfront isn’t likely to become desirable until the central waterfront is built-out. At the same time, he cautions against giving up on residential and mixed use development in favor of a industry because ultimately there is a much larger potential market for housing and lifestyle uses.
Still, Litwin says, industrial uses persist. “The notion that the entire stretch of the [north Delaware] is abandoned is incorrect,” he says, “there are still industrial uses and they’re expanding.”
He points to Revolution Recovery, a fast-growing recycling services company, which moved into a former vacant lot just south of Pennypack Park along the riverfront in 2008, something he thinks might signify at least a minor reemergence of industrial activity in the coming years.
But planners will have to seek ways to make industrial uses like Revolution Recovery or the Tioga Marine Terminal, compatible with the quietly advancing North Delaware Greenway, where years of planning efforts finally seem to be paying off.
The executive director of the Delaware River City Corporation Tom Branningan says greenway activity has picked up in recent years thanks to DRCC, a non-profit champion for improvements that also has the wherewithal to tap into various public and private funding sources. Thanks to the greenway’s status as an integral part of the East Coast Greenway, federal funds have also started funneling in.
DRCC’s efforts began paying off in 2008 when the City built the Pennypack on the Delaware Trail, bringing a wide paved trail to the waterfront, winding north from Pennypack Park to Pennypack Creek.
This year, several key projects advanced, including the 4.5 acre Lardner’s Point Park, which opened in May just below the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, preserving freshwater tidal wetlands. In October officials broke ground on the Port Richmond Trail, a 1.5 mile, 12 foot wide asphalt trail that will run along Allegheny Avenue from Monkiewicz Playground to Pulaski Park, at Delaware Avenue, and along Delaware Avenue from Allegheny Avenue to Lewis Street. Completion is expected a year from now.
In final design with construction to come in the next two years are the two mile K&T trail, which is being developed on an abandoned riverfront Conrail freight rail line and the Baxter Trail, another two mile extension of the trail from Pennypack Creek to Pleasant Hill Park.
“By 2014, 60 percent of the Greenway will be built,” says Brannigan, who adds that sections identified in the 2009 Gaps study are the only holes left to fill.
These varied developments point to an increase in momentum on the North Delaware. “The trails bring quality of life and access to open space to communities in need of more amenities” says Brannigan.
He also adds that through the construction of the trail and open space network, a significant amount of contamination and wildlife restoration efforts have been achieved. Brannigan points to Lardner’s Point Park which he says features wetlands, meadows, and forested areas for wildlife that currently don’t exist close by.
Cleaning up the contaminated soils that litter the North Delaware might be the key to unlocking private development in the future. As Hidden City reported recently, concentrated hazardscapes exist, en masse, along much of the Delaware River. Nowhere is that more apparent than the north Delaware.
But with a continued lack of private development, Litwin suggests that the future North Delaware and River Wards district plans will give planners the opportunity to reconsider housing and mixed-use development. “It really depends on the housing market,” he says, “but if the land is still vacant in a few years maybe the best use for the rezoned land would be to turn it back to industrial zoning. When it comes down to it, how long are we willing to wait for residential to happen?”
Still, Litwin asserts that no decisions have been made regarding north waterfront zoning. “These districts were purposefully left for the end of the district planning process because so much uncertainty exists that could be worked out in the near future,” he says.
While the City might be open to any proposal to put some of these vacant parcels back to productive use, reconcentrating industrial uses is unlikely to sit well with those who worry about public health threats from the industrial hazards.
Meanwhile, the apartment market along the central waterfront appears to be inching back. Albeit downsized from 2005-07, a number of residential developments are currently in the works along Columbus Boulevard. An increasing number of them, including Penn Treaty Village and the Canal Street North Entertainment Complex in Fishtown, are at the southern edge of the north waterfront.
With so many ifs surrounding residential development, the City is focusing its north Delaware efforts on building the greenway. Brannigan says the DRCC is constantly looking for ways to fill the existing gaps and connect the waterfront to surrounding neighborhoods.
Notable among them is the Streets Department’s northward extension of Delaware Avenue from Lewis Street to Orthodox Street. Brannigan says this will relieve truck congestion on Richmond Street and include right-of-way acquisition for pedestrian use to access the waterfront. “Our ultimate mission is to connect the waterfront to neighborhoods and improve access,” he says, “that’s what we’ll focus on in the future.”
About the author
Greg Meckstroth is an urban planner/designer, freelance writer, and recent Philly transplant. Greg received a Master of Community Planning from the University of Cincinnati in 2009 and has spent the last few years bouncing around the private sector planning world, more recently moving to Philly to work for a nationally renowned design firm in Center City. He also writes for Flying Kite Media and blogs at the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog. Twitter follow: @GMeckstroth.
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