Those pushing Philadelphia waterfront development say things will be different this time

Developer Michael Samschick stands in an apartment overlooking the Delaware waterfront in Philadelphia. He is developing two buildings into 192 apartments.
Developer Michael Samschick stands in an apartment overlooking the Delaware waterfront in Philadelphia. He is developing two buildings into 192 apartments. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 07, 2011

From the rooftop of a gutted eight-story storage building just south of the SugarHouse Casino, Michael Samschick looks out on the sweeping Delaware River vista - and what he hopes is the future.

Across Delaware Avenue is 12 acres that the city wants to transform into housing and shops, with a promenade stretching to the water's edge.

To the north and south are parking lots, vacant land, old warehouses, and empty buildings, all ripe for new uses.

And under his feet is a hulking, 80-year-old concrete building that once stored trucks and backhoes shipped through the port. His company - Core Realty - is converting the building and its twin next door on Poplar Street into 192 apartments.

"It's time," said Samschick of the waterfront. "This area is going to be amazing."

Philadelphians have heard this one before.

No other neighborhood has been beset by so many dashed dreams and false starts as the Delaware River waterfront. The opening of SugarHouse last September was the last major project.

But there are new signs of life on the banks of the central Delaware, restoring hope that reality could actually meet expectations.

Besides Core Realty's conversion of the twin storage buildings, other projects include:

The transformation of Municipal Pier 11 into the Race Street Pier. The city and Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC) opened the one-acre public space in May to spark interest in what the waterfront could look like.

The expansion of SugarHouse on North Delaware Avenue. The casino is working on plans to build a multistory parking garage with first-floor gaming space.

A proposed 3,000-seat music hall at 2055 Richmond St. Developer David Grasso wants to renovate an industrial building into a performance venue to be operated by Live Nation.

And the purchase of an old pumping station at Race Street and Columbus Boulevard by the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe Festival. The group will convert the 110-year-old brick structure into a theater, offices, and restaurant, which will increase street-level activity around the Race Street Pier.

"I can see the pendulum swinging," said Nick Stuccio, producing director of the festival. He said the waterfront was still a frontier, but added: "We went down there knowing we're getting in on the ground floor of something great."

What's happening on the waterfront is a far cry from the speculative frenzy of a decade ago, when Donald Trump lent his name to a high-rise condo project. Five years ago, there were plans for more than 20 towers - one as tall as Liberty Place.

Much of the hoopla was fueled by the advent of gambling and anticipation that the waterfront would transform into a dense entertainment district.

But the city has turned that idea on its head.

The quasi-public DRWC has come up with a new blueprint for the waterfront that attempts to extend the fabric of Philadelphia's neighborhoods to the water's edge.

This fall, the DRWC board will vote on the new master plan for a 6.5-mile stretch of the central Delaware from South Philadelphia to Fishtown.

If approved, it will go before the Planning Commission for inclusion in the overall rezoning of the city.

Mayor John F. Street hired Penn Praxis, the University of Pennsylvania Design School's clinical arm, to come up with a vision for the waterfront. With unprecedented input from stakeholders and neighbors, that vision became the central Delaware plan, which calls for a more accessible waterfront with dense housing, a string of small waterfront parks, street-level shops, restored wetlands, and a riverside recreation trail.

It's a waterfront with no new big-box stores or gated communities, one that invites people to walk right up to the water.

"The world's changed," Samschick said. "It's a different moment, different interest."

He said the city's sole casino is a "piece of a bigger picture, but not the main event."

Instead, the strength of neighborhoods on the western side of I-95 - from Queen Village up through Fishtown - is a bigger draw for developers.

"The heart of the live-music scene has migrated to the Girard Avenue corridor. That critical mass is more interesting to us than SugarHouse," said Grasso, who is proposing the music hall at Richmond and Cumberland Streets.

Supporters of the master plan say it will create a clearer map for development, instead of the scattershot approach of before.

But not everyone buys into the changes. About 90 percent of the land in the central Delaware district is owned by investors, who stand to lose some of their flexibility to pursue projects if it is adopted.

Craig Schelter, executive director of Development Workshop Inc., a nonprofit association that represents many of them, called the blueprint "more aspirational than practical."

"The public can set parameters, then the question is, what can you build it for and still do it without giving the land away or without public subsidies?" he said.

The DRWC has a chance to test that.

In about 18 months, it hopes to put out a request for bids from developers for transforming the 12-acre incinerator site at Delaware Avenue and Spring Garden Street, which includes the Festival Pier. It was formerly targeted as a potential casino site.

The project has the potential to showcase what the central Delaware plan is all about.

"This is probably the best chance that we have to get something going," said Thomas Corcoran, president of the DRWC.

The agency owns the land and will seek the federal, state, and city clearances to build on it. Corcoran said the goal was to enter into a 99-year lease with a developer to create a community with dense residential and retail space, but ample open space and a wide plaza.

"The waterfront is all dressed up and standing at the altar waiting for a suitor," said Matt Ruben, vice chairman of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, a coalition of civic groups that wants to advance the riverfront plan.

"The closer the master plan gets to becoming law, the more optimistic and excited I feel," he said. "For the first time, there's a horizon, not an endless uncertain future."

See a video on plans for the Delaware River waterfront at

Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659,, or @j_linq on Twitter.


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