Is there a developer out there who can envision a new future for the shuttered Delaware Station power plant adjacent to Penn Treaty Park on the waterfront in Fishtown? Or will the historic, Classical Revival building, designed by the architect John T. Windrim and the engineer W.C.L. Eglin, be torn down? With the Exelon Corporation’s deadline for bids to purchase the property coming up in just a few days, Philadelphians may soon find out what might happen to the monumental, concrete power plant.
See Chandra Lampreich’s photo essay of the Delaware Station HERE.
Gauging the level of interest in the power station–as imaginative reuse or as open chunk of waterfront–has been difficult. Binswanger, the global real estate broker headquartered in Philadelphia that is managing the bid process (spelled out HERE), did not respond to requests for comment. Some prominent sources within the development community said they weren’t even aware of the bidding process; others I spoke to viewed it as a long shot project. The property includes not only the power station itself, which occupies five acres, but also an adjacent 4.3 acre lot currently used for parking. (Exelon will continue to use a switch house on the property until next year; an ancillary power plant on the northern edge of the property, used at peak demand, is expected to remain in operation until 2030.)
Bids are due on Monday, November 3, at 5PM, however potential buyers were required to register by October 15th.
This area of the waterfront has become more attractive for developers in recent years, thanks to the revitalization of Fishtown, the construction of the Sugar House Casino just south of Penn Treaty Park, and developer Michael Samschick’s ongoing project to transform Ajax Metals and other industrial buildings into an entertainment complex along Canal Street.
The bid process, not all that dissimilar in approach from the way the City managed the sale of the landmark Family Court Building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (which has resulted in a development scheme for a hotel), raises various questions about the viability of the power plant for reuse:
Has any environmental remediation occurred? The bid documents don’t say. A schematic of the power station, included in the package, shows machinery intact.
Why not pursue a straight sale? The bid process may be a way to entice creative ideas or draw out a wildcard developer willing to take on an “impossible building.” It’s possible the building is too expensive to demolish and at the same time can’t be redeveloped without significant public sector support. It could therefore languish on the market.
Do public officials see the sale and potential reuse of the power station as a linchpin development? If so, they aren’t saying.
Is the building listed as “historic” and therefore protected from demolition? The main power plant, taken off line in 2004, is a landmark building in nearly every way, according to preservationists. And yet it isn’t listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, which would protect it from demolition, or the Federal Register, which would allow a developer to access tax credits toward its reuse. The lack of official status raises questions about Exelon’s intent. The company could demolish the plant right away.
A former president of the Fishtown Neighbors Association, Jill Betters, is preparing a nomination for the building to the Philadelphia Register (the FNA hasn’t met to officially consider the future use of the site or the possibility of demolition). But winning approval from the Historical Commission may be difficult. About a dozen years ago, the Commission did not approve the nomination of the even grander Richmond Generating Station a few miles north along the Betsy Ross Bridge. Although the building met nearly all of the 10 criteria to be eligible for local historic protection, the Historical Commission, reasoning that the owner of the building would be eligible for “economic hardship,” and thus relieved of the Commission’s regulatory burden, decided not to approve the nomination. The Commission “may reject the nomination for any reason, or without reason,” says its executive director Jonathan Farnham, even if it “satisfies all ten criteria for designation.”
Yet the striking building, something between 30th Street Station and London’s Battersea Power Station, has as much landmark ambition as a vacant building in Philadelphia can hope to achieve. Aaron Wunsch, a professor of historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design and the author of a study of Philadelphia’s historic power stations, said Delaware Station’s “elegant bones and prime location” give it a possible future.
Karen Thompson, a project manager for the non-profit Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC), which manages planning and development along the river, said her organization had “identified the plant as important” and was contemplating the creation of an outdoor amphitheater just to the north of the station to draw more interest in the area. Thompson said DRWC envisioned an “adaptive reuse” of the power station as the heart of a large mixed-use zone; she referred to as the “Penn Treaty District.” DRWC wants the area to become a combination retail, cultural, entertainment hub.
Certainly, Delaware Station generates lots of visionary ideas for reuse–residences, offices, or, maybe even Philly’s own version of London’s Tate Modern, housed in the still partially active Battersea Power Station. Various other cities have repurposed similarly impressive power plants. Rome’s Centrale Termoelettrica Giovanni Montemartini was converted into a museum. Istanbul’s Santral electric station has been converted into a museum and incorporated into a university campus, and Baltimore’s waterfront power plant became a Hard Rock Cafe.
Even closer to home, Delaware Station’s own prototype, the Chester Generating Station, was successfully renovated in 2003 despite its location in a crumbling, economically devastated city and having sat vacant for more than 20 years.
But repurposing would also involve time and labor intensive removal of literally thousands of tons of rusting energy equipment and serious environmental remediation, all at significant cost. Unlike old factories and mills, said Wunsch, “old power stations are hard to reuse because their machinery is interwoven with the fabric of the building.”
In other words, it isn’t clear if the sale of the building is a first step toward reuse or demolition.
A Power Station for a New Age
The Philadelphia Electric Company absorbed its last Philadelphia-based rival in 1901. The company’s board of directors, hungry to dominate the regional market for electricity, began targeting small firms in outlying areas. After 17 years of near continuous expansion, PECO acquired the Delaware County Electric Company, remarkable only due to the fact that it had recently finished construction on a palatial new power station on Chester’s waterfront.
Most utilities at the time were eking out an existence in niche markets–most Americans still viewed electricity as an extravagant novelty and a market for residential electricity hadn’t emerged–providing power for municipal street lamps and the like. But DCEO had taken a different approach with the immense Chester Generating Station, a Georgian cathedral of a coal power plant, intentionally overbuilt to serve as a humming advertisement for electricity.
With the Chester Generating Station now folded into its portfolio, PECO executives ran with the idea. First, they erected a marquee atop the Chester station that read, subtly, “Electricity is Cheap in Chester.” Then they crafted a plan to build, at great expense, a similarly awe-inspiring central generator in Philadelphia. While the company could have likely acquired cheap land on the city’s fringe, PECO bought the former Neafie and Levy shipyard, in the heart of the city. They commissioned the same man who designed the Chester station, a Gilded Age starchitect, John T. Windrim, today best known for designing the Franklin Institute and the Family Court buildings on the Parkway, and the engineer William C.L. Eglin, who would go on to design power plants around the world.
The costs were extreme. Soaring windows to showcase generators were interspersed with bunker-thick concrete walls, and topped with engraved lettering that conveyed the coming permanence of the electric age. After wartime interruptions and a labor dispute, the building opened in 1920 with two 30,000 kilowatt turbines–similar units from the day weighed in excess of one million pounds each.
The building was a boondoggle, but it worked, along with many other inducements by energy companies to encourage citywide electrification. PECO was forced to double capacity just three years later, adding in two additional 30,000 kW generators in 1923. By the 1950s, the company retrofitted Delaware Station to handle two new generators, this time each capable of producing more power than the original four combined, and another colossal station had since sprouted upriver in Port Richmond.
But the success of the grand generating stations that Delaware helped inspire would also lead to their eventual deactivation. The two newest generators would be the last–Delaware Station was out of space to expand, and aging. Newer power plants are utilitarian by design and increasingly built where land is cheap, rather than visible.
Hence, Philadelphia has a giant, beautiful, decaying, difficult-to-repurpose power station sitting on prominent slice of riverfront land. But the restoration of Chester station–Delaware’s parent–offers some hope that the power plant can be restored.
Called the “Wharf at Rivertown,” the renovated station was a dream of Michael O’Neill, then head of Preferred Real Estate Investments (PREI). A developer who got his start rehabbing older buildings, O’Neill said he was taken by the building the first time he saw it, along with other prospective developers, on a county-sponsored boat tour of Chester’s hollowed out waterfront in 2000.
“Originally, we were looking for a building for a tenant,” he said in a recent phone interview. “My partner said, ‘what do you think about that old power plant?’ I said it was beautiful, but what do we do with it?”
PREI ambitiously decided on a $150 million office complex proposal, with Chester station as a centerpiece, and was able to pitch the idea to several corporate tenants and line up local political support. O’Neill hired the architecture firm Blackney Hayes, specialists in the adaptation of industrial buildings, to design the renovation. Helped in no small part by the fact that the land fell within a tax-free Keystone Opportunity Zone, then-Mayor Dominic Pileggi hailed the plan as the most important project in Chester in 50 years, according to the Delaware County Times.
Even more impressive was the fact that O’Neill claimed he would complete the $30 million overhaul of the power station with exclusively private funds. But as his crews gutted nearly all the existing infrastructure to accommodate an office floor plan–essentially creating a new building within the shell of the power station–costs started to rise.
“Initially, we thought we would make money,” he said. “But there’s no way of knowing really all the things you’re going to find. Getting rid of the old boilers, tearing it all down and keeping it safe while you’re doing it…it was a labor of love.”
Weighed down by asbestos and PCB removal, PREI eventually sought tax credits and other subsidies to complete the project.
“We underestimated our costs. We had to do a lot of things, tax credits, historic credits, which limits what you can do but gives you a pretty significant tax credit to help. We got some grants with some of the public infrastructure to help on the outside and the parking lots. We did a deal with the unions that helped us with some financing and some concessions to help make it happen.” said O’Neill. “It takes everything, it just takes everything to make it work.”
After two years of renovations, on the eve of ribbon-cutting, PREI had spent some $65 million retrofitting the building, not counting what O’Neill characterized as “$10 or 15 million more in various programs” from the government and trade unions he eventually sought to bring the project to completion. The historic restrictions forced the company to shrink the total office space from O’Neill’s original 1 million square feet to about 400,000.
But despite cost overruns and the eventual shuttering of an ambitious 1,000-person event hall in the main turbine room, PREI did succeed in carving out six floors of office space out of a building not so dissimilar to Delaware Station. More than ten years later, it’s still occupied. And although the eventual costs were nearly triple O’Neill’s original estimate, they’re weren’t wildly out of spec with other office construction costs.
“It’s a break even type of proposition,” said O’Neill. “But I’m glad we did it. Without us, it would have been knocked down and an incredible landmark would have been lost forever.”
O’Neill, who went on to make a fortune off a fracking supply company he founded, said he was also familiar with the Delaware Station in Fishtown. He said he could see the building being converted to housing.
“I don’t know enough about what’s right there, but I know certainly that not far away people would find that to be a really cool space,” he said.
But he added that he wouldn’t be the one to actually build that space.
Wunsch, of Penn, says the Chester station is only somewhat useful as a model. The renovation resulted in the removal of the building’s most iconic feature, its smokestacks. Moreover, all the vintage equipment, in place until 2000, was lost. At other power plant conversions, architects have integrated impressive old machinery.
The Chester model demonstrates an uncommon intersection between, developers, preservationists, and state and local government. In Fishtown, such support is not readily apparent–not only is there no historic designation, there is no tax-free zone awaiting bidders, and local government is largely taking a wait-and-see approach to supporting redevelopment. Delaware could become available for state and federal historic tax credits even without a local historic designation, if a developer wished to pursue that process. The building need only be eligible for the Federal Register to qualify so long as it is approved by the end of the development process.
“Obviously any discussion about public support for a project would depend upon the specific nature of that project and its needs,” said Luke Butler, chief of staff for Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor and head of the Philadelphia Commerce Department. “We look forward to having that conversation once a proposal is chosen.”
Butler alluded to “certain tax credits” and other support depending on proposals’ “job creation possibilities,” but declined to get into specifics.
It isn’t clear either that the bid process has generated much intensive strategic thinking among real estate developers. “I’ve personally heard nothing [about interest in the sale],” said a representative for a prominent real estate investment firm. “My guess is there isn’t a feasible conversion project there. Maybe there’s an industrial use.”
But O’Neill, even with his conflicted memories of Chester, was still hopeful.
“It’s a young man’s game. If we knew back then everything we knew today, we probably wouldn’t have done it,” said O’Neill, referring to the Chester project. “But it is doable. The buildings are beautiful…they’re built like mansions.”
About the author
Ryan Briggs is a journalist who lives in West Philadelphia. A veteran of several economic development agencies in Philadelphia, Ryan has contributed to the Philadelphia City Paper, Next City and other fine, local publications. Follow him on Twitter at @rw_briggs.
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