In Bensalem, high hopes for waterfront development

Posted: April 23, 2013

Bensalem Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo calls his township's five-mile waterfront a "mishmash" of uses.

There are light industry and chemical storage; parks and older apartment houses; riverside cottages and the 18th-century Andalusia estate.

But on 45 open acres on State Road just over the Philadelphia line, tucked between a truck yard and small warehouses, the mayor sees the future taking shape.

A builder will start building and selling the first of 600 homes, including townhouses, condominiums, and 16 customized, million-dollar houses. The Waterside development will have an eight-acre park, public square, street-level shops, a restaurant, food store, and marina.

Waterside will feature a street grid linking State Road to the Delaware's edge and making the river more accessible to the public.

"It's an opportunity," DiGirolamo said. His goal: "To make sure people enjoy the waterfront."

You can hear the same sort of talk down the river in Philadelphia, where the city has adopted a new plan for the central Delaware River waterfront.

Developers and property owners have reacted coolly to some of the ideas. Some fear a street grid could reduce the value of their land by limiting what they are allowed to build.

City planners continue to push developers to provide adequate river access for the public and to keep new construction to a lower profile.

But in Bensalem, those principles already are being put into play.

"Lower Bucks is way ahead of Philadelphia on this," said Steve McKenna, president of Mignatti Cos., the Huntingdon Valley developer of Waterside.

Change grew out of necessity in Bensalem.

The closing of the big Elf Atochem chemical plant in 1997 forced the township to think of new uses for vacant land.

DiGirolamo asked for help from PennPraxis, a project-based research arm of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design. Harris Steinberg, its director, advised the township to think about public access and extending streets to the water.

PennPraxis was hired by then-Mayor John F. Street in 2007 to help devise a similar waterfront plan for the central Delaware.

DiGirolamo, Steinberg said, "has been carrying around the plan like a Bible for 10 years."

The township rezoned 650 commercial and industrial acres on the waterfront with an overlay that would allow for residential construction. It also approved an ordinance requiring any housing project to include public access to the water.

At the Elf Atochem site, manufacturing buildings were demolished. Mignatti bought the property in 2004 and, with close oversight from federal and state environmental agencies, spent more than $5 million to rehabilitate the tainted waterfront land.

But the $250 million project was stalled by the economic downturn in 2008, McKenna said. Next month, Waterside will open a sales office, with construction of the first of 200 townhouses beginning in September, McKenna said.

Elsewhere on the Bensalem waterfront, activity is starting to pick up. Just north of Waterside, another developer - Strategic Realty Investments of Devon - plans to build 500 residential units on 40 acres, DiGirolamo said.

The history of the Waterside property dates to 1917, when it was used by a shipbuilder.

Penn Salt Refining Co. took over the property in 1940, and, during World War II, the U.S. government used the facility to produce chemicals. It was back in private hands from the 1950s to the '90s, with manufacturers producing cleaning and lubricating agents for the laundry and metalworking industries there.

After the site closed in 1997, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan used one of the buildings as a soundstage for his movie Signs.

Townhouses at Waterside will start in the high $200,000s and go up to the low $400,000s. Sixteen customized single-family houses will cost about $1 million. In addition, the project will offer condominiums in a thin, 10-story building running along a narrow inlet.

McKenna said laying out the project on a street grid instead of as a gated community creates corridors of views from State Road to the river.

"This is a timeless plan," McKenna said. "It's all about the river."


Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659, jlin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @j_linq.

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