When Sunoco leaves, what might go up at South Phila. site?

Large storage tanks sit on the southern bank of the Schuylkill at the Sunoco refinery in South Philadelphia, which is up for sale.
Large storage tanks sit on the southern bank of the Schuylkill at the Sunoco refinery in South Philadelphia, which is up for sale. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 08, 2011

If Sunoco fails to find a buyer and idles its oil refinery in South Philadelphia next summer, the 1,400-acre property along the Schuylkill will join the ranks of shuttered Philadelphia industrial sites dating to the 19th century and in need of significant environmental cleanup.

In the last two years, DuPont Co. closed Marshall Laboratory in Grays Ferry, where a chemical plant began operations in 1863, and Dow Chemical shut down the few remaining operations at the former Rohm & Haas plant in Bridesburg, where a predecessor began operations in the 1840s. At the Sunoco site in the city's Point Breeze section, Atlantic Petroleum Co. started storing refined petroleum products in 1866, and it built a refinery there in 1870.

Some contaminated industrial sites sit empty for decades, even after environmental remediation. But the Sunoco property - because of its location between University City, the Navy Yard, and Philadelphia International Airport - is generating unusual excitement.

It's also likely to generate a lively debate over whether the area should remain industrial or be opened up to a broader range of uses.

"Once they leave, if they leave, I think there's going to be a tough fight as to what goes there," said Kevin D. Flynn, of the Flynn Co., a commercial and industrial real estate firm in Center City.

Brian O'Neill, who has decades of experience redeveloping old industrial sites and is best known locally for his work along the Schuylkill in Conshohocken, knows what he would like to see.

"I'd encourage the city to keep an open mind," O'Neill said Wednesday. "It'd be a terrific place to have a shopping-living environment. I think it could be made extraordinary. It could create a whole new lifestyle engine to attract more people to live in Philadelphia."

O'Neill estimated that it would cost $100 million to remediate the land, based on his experience with a former 450-acre paint-factory site in Sayreville, N.J. The cost there was $60 million, he said.

John Grady, president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., which last year completed a study of the city's remaining industrial land, was skeptical of putting housing where the refinery now stands.

"I think you have some significant contamination issues there," Grady said. "The notion of putting people in the way of those contaminations might not be the smartest thing to do."

Besides, he said, there's already a plan for the city's Delaware riverfront that calls for substantial residential development: "From a citywide perspective, we want to keep some balance."

Harris Steinberg, head of PennPraxis, the University of Pennsylvania Design School's clinical arm, said that Rohm & Haas, DuPont, and Sunoco were the giants of the 19th and 20th centuries. He would like to see the business giants of the 21st century - whoever they turn out to be - take their place at the refinery site if it opens up.

Ideally, though, it will be "less toxic and more inviting in terms of public access," Steinberg said.

When it comes to resurrecting shuttered industrial sites, location matters.

DuPont's former Marshall Laboratory, just north of Sunoco's refinery and adjacent to University City, was closed in 2009 and snapped up by the University of Pennsylvania about a year later.

Environmental cleanup there, including the removal of contaminated soil under the parking lot, is mostly completed. It will allow the site to be used for laboratories, offices, or classrooms, but not housing. It's now home to Penn's transportation operations.

But in Bridesburg, the former Rohm & Haas chemical plant, closed last year, sits vacant with an undetermined future. Many of the buildings have been torn down, and environmental remediation is under way, Dow spokeswoman Barbara Del Duke said.

"Plans for future redevelopment have not been determined yet," she said.

Languishing on the market for decades has been the former Philadelphia Coke Co. plant, also in Bridesburg. It was closed in the early 1980s and cleaned up under the federal Superfund law, but though redevelopment plants have been proposed, the site remains vacant.

The most recent plan for the Philadelphia Coke site called for open space along the Delaware River, which would allow for a multi-use path.

Don't expect that at the Sunoco site, even if the refinery closes, said Walter Payne, manager of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's cleanup program in the Southeast region.

"I doubt seriously that we're going a get a trail along the refinery," Payne said. As do many owners of industrial sites, Sunoco is "likely to insist that the future use be restricted to nonresidential."

Parklands, such as the Schuylkill River Park now being extended down past the Marshall Laboratory site, have to meet tougher residential cleanup standards, Payne said.

More coverage of Sunoco Corp., including this week's announcement that two Phila.-area refineries would be sold or closed, at www.philly.com/sunoco

Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.