As drivers cut west across town on the Vine Street Expressway, the long-abandoned Willow Street Steam Generation Plant comes into view, a hulking creature from another era. On the south side of the highway is Center City’s growing, glassy skyline. But to the north, Willow Steam is all brick and rust. A trio of smokestacks and checkered metallic structures burst from the building’s boxy core like an industrial-strength fungus. To some, the building at 9th and Callowhill Streets exudes an odd beauty. To others, blight. Regardless, it appears to be here to stay.
The Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I) issued a construction permit for redevelopment of the building in early March, an L&I spokesperson confirmed in an email, following on the heels of a January 2022 permit approval to convert the building to mixed-use residential, including a sit-down restaurant, commercial space, and 69 residential units.
The details of what would be a herculean redevelopment process–the interior of the 158-foot-tall building historically had no actual floors, but did contain a jumbled mess of asbestos-laden industrial equipment–largely remain a mystery. No detailed interior architectural designs are publicly available.
And Parallel Architecture Studio, a Center City firm that prepared some limited drawings for the 2022 approval, said that building owner and developer John Wei does not want contact with the press at this time. Wei also did not respond to an interview request.
A Steamy History
What heats a building? For many the answer is the combustion of natural gas or oil, for others it’s electricity. But how about steam? Built in 1927, the Willow Steam Plant is a vestige of a relatively unique heating system still in use in some parts of Center City today. As the United States began to electrify in the 1880s, the Edison Electric Light Company set up shop at 908 Sansom Street, burning coal to generate electricity to sell. But an add-on quickly followed, as steam from the plant’s machinery was repurposed to heat a nearby home.
That method grew into an extended network, with additional plants like Willow Steam popping up nearby to push steam through dozens of miles of underground pipelines and heat buildings throughout Center City and into West Philadelphia. Originally constructed by the Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO), the Willow Steam building fell into disuse by the 1970s and was then sold and resold many times over, all while falling further into disrepair.
A few ideas have been floated for reuse over the years. The two most notorious: a facility to burn trash and convert it steam, then as a giant poster board for huge, wrap-around advertising. But neither came to fruition, and in 2017 a fresh controversy ensued.
Who You Gonna Call?
In a 2016 article, Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron highlighted two Bella Vista residents, Joel Palmer and Jeff Goldman, as the city’s “blight busters.” Using a little-known Pennsylvania law that enables nonprofits to take conservatorship of a blighted building without actually taking ownership, the two were behind dozens of redevelopment projects across the city, including the Chinese Cultural and Community Center at 10th and Cherry Streets, Saffron reported. But the hook of the 2016 story was that Palmer and Goldman were set to take on their biggest challenge yet: Willow Steam.
Reached by phone this week, Palmer said much has transpired since 2016. As he tells it, Palmer’s nonprofit entity, Scioli Turco Inc., initiated the conservatorship process against the building’s then owner, Quyen V. Tran. But in December 2016, records show Tran sold the building to current owner John Wei.
Wei then used the transaction to argue against Palmer’s advances in court, Palmer said. Eventually, a resolution was reached in which the judge allowed Wei to move forward with the remediation and redevelopment, with Palmer’s group receiving compensation and exiting the arrangement, he said.
Little can be ascertained about the extent of any rehabilitation work to date. Palmer says some cleaning up of the exterior of the property has been performed and fencing established. A Lew Blum towing operation currently hugs the building’s parking lots on its eastern and northern flanks. But the exact status of the interior of the building is unknown. A 2021 column by Saffron at the Inquirer stated that a court-required remediation plan was completed in 2020. Asked about his knowledge of any remediation, Palmer said the court did approve and oversee an asbestos remediation plan, but he remained critical of it.
“[Wei] embarked on a three-year odyssey using the slowest workers I have ever seen in my life,” Palmer claimed. “They said they went in there and cleared out all the asbestos. I won’t go into the building. I’m going to take them at their word that they did take all the asbestos out and cleaned it out.”
Sarah McEneaney, board president of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, says no one from Wei’s team has come before the association to present an update or plans. But she recalls walking by Willow Steam in recent years and seeing an air ventilation system emanating from the building, which she understood to be part of an asbestos remediation. McEneaney also says she remembers a prior owner working on asbestos remediation, but being shut down for not having the proper permits.
Asked about the status of any asbestos inspection and remediation, L&I said its involvement with asbestos is generally “very limited,” and added that the City’s Department of Health is responsible for the enforcement of asbestos.
Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district includes Willow Steam, is said to have been an early proponent of the building’s redevelopment and the push for a conservatorship. However, Squilla’s office said he also does not have any new information. “Councilman Squilla is generally supportive of the redevelopment, however it seems to be a by-right development, so our office has not been involved in or made aware of any plans,” Anne Kelly King, Squilla’s chief of staff, wrote in an email.
Looking Toward the Future
Regardless of the lack of details available on the building’s remediation and architectural plans, McEneaney says she and her association are largely supportive of the proposed redevelopment. While some, including Palmer, think razing the building would be best, McEneaney said the prevailing opinion of the association’s board is to keep Willow Steam and similar buildings.
“I think it’s a great building and would like to see adaptive reuse,” McEneaney said. “We want to retain the industrial past of the neighborhood. We prefer reuse rather than demolition of properties.”
The exterior architectural sketches made available last year do provide some insight into plans for the building. They show the building’s 100 feet of height divided into seven floors. A pair of new roof decks bracket the 2nd floor, and a third is shown on the 7th floor, with a staircase leading to an additional deck on the rooftop. From there, immediately visible would be the building’s most defining features: three existing 58-foot-tall air stacks the design says will remain.
Inside, the basement would contain the commercial space, while the first floor would house a restaurant and eight residential units. The 2nd through 7th floors would contain an additional 61 residential units. The plans call for 20 off-street parking spaces in a garage and 35 bicycle spaces.
It is unclear when work will begin. Construction permits were issued March 10 and are valid for six months, L&I noted, with the possibility of two additional six-month extensions.
Thanks for the update on this property.
Glad to see it finally happening! Love the adaptive reuse vision to breathe new life into this Philly industrial icon- similar to The Battery on a smaller scale. Haven’t we all driven by on the Vine St. X-way and asked, What is/was that hulking thing with the rusty smokestacks, and what does it want to be? Looking forward to the next chapter of its industrial-strength fungus (Kyle is a poet). I just hope to see the giant inflatable pig floating above . . .