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Taking care of business

John Grady sees value in preserving acreage for industrial use. JENNY SWIGODA / TIMES PHOTO

New president John Grady intends to continue the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.’s mission of being a bridge for business.

PIDC has an “I” in its name for a reason, according to John Grady, the new president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.

A 53-year-old non-profit partnership of the City of Philadelphia and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, PIDC helps private businesses in all economic sectors with real estate and financing. But the agency is most concerned with promoting the development of industrial land, which has become, perhaps surprisingly, scarce within the city’s boundaries.

“We don’t have anything against retail or investing in retail, but if we don’t protect the industrial, economic forces will overwhelm them,” said Grady, who succeeded Peter Longstreth as PIDC’s chief executive this month.

On the open market, retail land is more valuable, so real-estate investors often acquire industrial property and try to have it rezoned for retail use to make it more valuable — regardless of whether a community needs another big-box store or shopping center.

“The thing we stress is it’s important that we have balance in the economy,” Grady said.

Meanwhile, it’s in the city’s best interests to protect and cultivate industrial property largely because of the type of jobs companies in the sector generally create. Industrial jobs generally pay better and offer better benefits than those in retail or tourism and hospitality.

“The industrial sector is important to the city because of the quality of jobs that they offer,” said Tom Dalfo, PIDC’s vice president for real-estate services.

Their research in the area and their vision for the future of the city’s economy are detailed in the report An Industrial Land & Market Strategy for the City of Philadelphia, released jointly by PIDC, the City Planning Commission, the mayor’s office and the Commerce Department last September. At the time, Grady was executive vice president of PIDC, overseeing all of its real-estate activities, while Dalfo sat on the project team.

Grady, 43, grew up in Olney and East Oak Lane, graduated from La Salle College High School and earned a bachelor’s in economics from La Salle University.

From 1988 to 1998, he served as chief operating officer of the Cooper’s Ferry Development Association, which guided commercial redevelopment of Camden’s waterfront. In that time, he earned a master’s in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania.

Grady joined PIDC in 1998 and has been a lead figure in its acquisition and redevelopment of the Navy Yard in South Philadelphia, along with many other real-estate projects, including dozens in the Northeast.

“Northeast Philadelphia continues to be the single-largest concentration of active industrial land that we have in the city,” Grady said. “Ensuring the sustainability of Northeast industrial parks is clearly high on our agenda.”

These days, when Grady and his colleagues say “industrial,” they mean it in a much broader sense than how it might have been defined a half-century ago.

While the term can still be used to classify the kind of heavy manufacturing activities that drove the city’s economy for most of the 20th century, it’s now a much broader term encompassing light manufacturing, warehouse/distribution, medical, pharmaceutical, education and office space.

“Those are sectors that were non-existent or very small fifty years ago,” Grady said.

When the city and chamber of commerce co-founded PIDC, the region already was starting a transition to a post-industrial economy. Philadelphia already has lost some 100,000 of its 300,000 or more industrial manufacturing jobs.

“(PIDC’s) response was to develop a series of financing programs and real-estate programs to support manufacturing and industry,” Grady said.

Since then, the agency has helped develop more than 3,000 acres. It now owns about 300 acres in the Navy Yard, along with about 300 additional acres elsewhere in the city.

Much of its early work in the 1960s and ’70s involved properties on the perimeter of Northeast Philadelphia Airport. In the 1980s, it began redeveloping the former Philadelphia State Hospital grounds in the Far Northeast.

PIDC built the Byberry East and Byberry West industrial parks, virtually all of which are now privately owned. Later, the agency bought the remaining 153 acres of hospital ground from the state and resold it to private residential and commercial developers.

The Westrum Development Corp. is building an older-adult community on part of the former hospital ground, while PIDC is assisting Brandywine Realty Trust in its search for a long-term occupant for an additional 50 acres along Roosevelt Boulevard, north of Southampton Road.

“The idea is converting older industrial to new commercial/industrial. Most industrial uses today are pretty compatible with neighboring (uses),” Grady said.

PIDC has a keen interest in two other large Northeast properties, although both are privately owned.

The agency is helping Teva North America to get necessary governmental approvals to redevelop the former Island Green golf course on Red Lion Road near Sandmeyer Lane into a prescription-drug distribution facility. The site formerly hosted a railroad-car manufacturing plant before it was converted to a golf course as a state-supported “brownfield reclamation” project.

“The golf course was a great transitional use but the city retained industrial zoning for a reason,” Grady said. “It’s in an industrial area. The attraction of investment and jobs and taxes to the city is an important message. It sends a signal that the city is open for investment.”

Meanwhile, along Roosevelt Boulevard just south of Comly Road, a 38-acre site has sat idle since the Internal Revenue Service vacated the property in favor of the renovated U.S. post office at 30th and Market streets. The site is zoned industrial, but owned by a New York firm that specializes in developing and managing retail properties.

The site is now up for sale. Were it not for the involvement of PIDC and local elected officials, the site might’ve become another shopping center.

“Nowadays, everybody talks about public/private joint ventures. Well, (PIDC) is the original,” Grady said. “People think of PIDC and think of big projects, like the sports complex. But the truth is that ninety percent of our activities are in the neighborhoods.” ••

Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or bkenny@bsmphilly.com

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