Planning new life for the ‘Lower Schuylkill’

The Sunoco oil refinery along the Schuylkill, with the Platt Bridge in the background. Development officials hope the Sunoco facility, now for sale, is maintained as a refinery. Planners also hope to develop an adjacent 300-acre site owned by Sunoco for activities including manufacturing, dis­tri­bu­tion, re­search and de­vel­op­ment, and ware­house stor­age. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
The Sunoco oil refinery along the Schuylkill, with the Platt Bridge in the background. Development officials hope the Sunoco facility, now for sale, is maintained as a refinery. Planners also hope to develop an adjacent 300-acre site owned by Sunoco for activities including manufacturing, dis­tri­bu­tion, re­search and de­vel­op­ment, and ware­house stor­age. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 28, 2012

Phila­del­phians are fa­mil­iar with the pic­tur­esque Schuylkill River Trail, and, farther south, the grit­ty stor­age tanks at Su­no­co’s Phila­del­phia re­fin­ery. But there’s a vast stretch of the Schuylkill that many peo­ple drive past, but few ac­tu­al­ly see.

The city says that six miles along the riv­er’s banks, from University City to Phila­del­phia International Airport, is prime for com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment and accounts for 68 per­cent of Phila­del­phia’s un­der­u­til­ized and va­cant in­dus­tri­al land.

It’s home to refineries, utilities, freight rail, scrap yards, and remnants of industries that grew up on rail lines that passed through the area.

This "Low­er Schuylkill" is the last un­planned tract in the city, said Alan Green­berg­er, dep­u­ty mayor for eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment. "In a city that’s out of land, but for this, we should be thinking long and hard about what we see happening there."

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 lloyd@phillynews.com.

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