The City Planning Commission, Commerce Department, and Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. are finalizing a Lower Schuylkill master plan to transform the 4,100 acres into another Route 202 corridor — a hub for businesses, technology start-ups, industry, and research spun out of nearby universities and medical schools.
The goal is to create jobs that were lost when companies including U.S. Gypsum, National Heat & Power, M.A. Bruder & Sons (MAB paints), DuPont Co. Marshall Laboratory, and Breyers Ice Cream Co. downsized, relocated, or closed.
They left behind empty buildings and large parcels from the 34th Street Bridge and Grays Ferry Avenue to the airport and the Navy Yard.
The master plan for the Lower Schuylkill, which will be released this fall, envisions new city streets, an extension of the Schuylkill River Trail to the west bank, and construction of a pedestrian walkway across an old Conrail bridge.
One goal will be to link the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, Children’s Hospital, and the University of the Sciences south to Bartram’s Garden, part of the Fairmount Park system, and beyond.
The dominant industry on the Lower Schuylkill has been petroleum refining, beginning with Atlantic Refining Co. in 1866 and now Sunoco Inc., which owns 1,400 acres on the river and is in negotiations with the Carlyle Group to sell its Philadelphia refinery.
"We’ve assumed at this point that the refining complex remains refining," said PIDC president John Grady. "Our priority is focused on trying to support the transition of that facility as a refinery to new owners."
The plan will focus initially on three areas.
One is creation of a research and industrial campus around Bartram’s Garden that will connect with a bicycle, jogging, and walking river trail north to academic campuses in University City.
PIDC has acquired about 50 acres on either side of Bartram’s Garden as a starting point to attract young growing companies that need space to expand.
"Instead of going to the suburbs, we want them to stay here," Grady said. "We’d like the west side of the Schuylkill to be the new Route 202 corridor, and to have it connect ultimately to the airport and the Navy Yard."
Another focus for redevelopment is 300 acres that are vacant and owned by Sunoco, north of a Philadelphia Gas Works plant on Passyunk Avenue. Known as the "north yard," the tract has largely been remediated and cleared and would be suitable for manufacturing, distribution, research and development, warehouse storage, and logistics, city planners say.
"You have a site here with rail, barge, and existing pipeline access. How can you leverage that investment to attract more production and refining activity?" Grady said.
A third effort will be locating land parcels for industrial and commercial development, closer to the airport and the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market. As the airport grows, there will likely be demand for distribution facilities for air-shipped products and related support services to the airport, the city says.
The area is close to the region’s major job generators: the airport, the Navy Yard, Center City, and University City.
"So you ask yourself: What’s wrong with this picture?" said Greenberger, the deputy mayor. "How come these assets, which are so close together, are not linked by something more dynamic? We’ve got car junkers, underused or vacant industrial land, and a rather beautiful river snaking its way in between."
The challenge in developing a lot of the property is that it is hard to get to by car.
I-95 and the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) go around and past it. And there’s a lot of rail infrastructure that keeps traffic out.
"There was never an infrastructure built to penetrate into these sites," Grady said. "That’s the stage we’re at now, thinking about the investments that would have to be made to encourage more private investment and more development, and to create jobs."
"We’re trying to evaluate the cost and the process for moving forward, “ Grady said. “One of the key things is more road access on the west side of the river, and the east side too."
"Hopefully, we won’t have to build 20 miles of roads from day one, because if that would cost $1 billion we’re never going to find the money, and we’re never going to get started," he said. "So the idea is to make little connections first — from University City down into the Bartram’s Garden area. Opening up some of these parcels that we already control for development. Beginning to establish some momentum and some activity, and allowing that to push farther down the west side of the river."
"On the east side, as Sunoco and Carlyle work through the refinery, the opportunity for a 300-acre development could be a real driver to attract infrastructure investment if there was a large development opportunity to go along with it," Grady said.
Key to any plans will be an extension of the Schuylkill River Trail, which is already under way. A new half-mile trail and greenway will open June 11 on the east side of the river in Grays Ferry.
Soon a boardwalk will be built, on the east side, extending the river trail in Center City from Locust Street to just south of South Street, with a connector onto the South Street Bridge, said Joseph Syrnick, president and chief executive of the Schuylkill River Development Corp.
When completed, pedestrians and bicyclists will be able to cross the South Street Bridge and use River Fields Drive or Civic Center Boulevard on the west side to connect to the 34th Street Bridge. From there, pedestrians will be able to cross the Schuylkill again to the east and connect to the new Grays Ferry trail near the former DuPont Marshall Lab property, purchased in 2010 by the University of Pennsylvania.
Next will be the design and construction of a pedestrian walkway over an abandoned Conrail "swing" bridge that would connect bikers and joggers from the new trail in Grays Ferry to another trail that will be built on the west bank and go to Bartram’s Garden.
"That isn’t far off. We could be talking two years," Syrnick said. Long-range, the Schuylkill trail will go, from Bartram’s Garden, an additional five miles to Fort Mifflin.
PIDC has met with community groups and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, said Thomas Dalfo, PIDC vice president of real estate services.
"This area used to be more of an employment center. They want to see it reestablished as an employment center again," he said. "It used to be a place where people could walk to work, and there was a history of people working in the neighborhood. And they’d love to see that again."
Contact Linda Loyd at 215 854 2831 or firstname.lastname@example.org.