Neighbors discuss future of vacant riverfront land

A mile-long section of the Delaware River waterfront became a clean slate for a night — almost — as city planners met with about 50 Northeast residents at Abraham Lincoln High School last Thursday to further the North Delaware District Plan.

Residents of the district, which includes the neighborhoods of Wissinoming, Tacony, Mayfair, Holmesburg, Upper Holmesburg and East Torresdale, were asked to gather into small working groups and to plot desirable uses for vacant and under-utilized riverfront land. The problem was, much of the land is still contaminated as a result of its industrial past and unsuitable for one highly desired use — waterfront housing.

“There’s too much contamination of the properties to allow residential,” City Planning Division Director Laura Spina told one of the working groups.

Instead, residents had the options of recommending uses like open space, light industry, medium industry, office/business services and retail shopping for specific parcels in a territory generally bounded by Cottman Avenue to the north, Robbins Avenue to the south, the river to the east and Keystone Street to the west.

It was all part of the City Planning Commission’s ongoing Philadelphia2035 project, an effort to engage residents throughout the city in imagining what their neighborhoods will look like 20 years from now. Last Thursday’s public meeting was the second of three for the North Delaware District.

To be clear, not every parcel in the “industrial waterfront” portion of the district might be readily available for redevelopment. Prominent features include Disston Park, the Interstate 95 and Amtrak railroad corridors and a few very active businesses like Stoughton Truck Staging and Marjam Supply Company. Also, the nonprofit Delaware River City Corporation has mapped out a riverside recreation trail that would span the length of the planning area, although portions of the planned trail are in various stages of development.

One of the residents’ working groups comprised largely of folks from the Mayfair Civic and Business associations settled on recommendations of open “green” space along the riverbank from the area of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge north to the Quaker City Yacht Club and former site of the St. Vincent Home.

They further proposed a combination of corporate office and retail uses overlooking the open space and industrial uses along New State Road. To better access the newly developed businesses, the same group proposed a new north-south street that would parallel New State Road one block closer to the river, as well as an extension of Magee Avenue east of New State Road to the river.

Other working groups offered different concepts. Some proposed more development of east-west streets to improve river access. Another popular idea was the development of a new riverfront park, something like the existing Pennypack on the Delaware to the north.

Larissa Klevan, the City Planning Commission’s project manager for the North Delaware District Plan, said that the “industrial waterfront” was one of a few focus areas identified by residents at a prior district meeting in August. Neighbors were also largely concerned with the redevelopment of the former Liddonfield Homes public housing project, as well as improvements to the Frankford Avenue commercial corridor in Mayfair.

“Each district plan has its own unique features and we try to highlight them at our second (public) meeting,” Klevan said. “Our task tonight was to define future uses and how we can make connections. We wanted to give people a visual opportunity to lay that out.”

The planners are really looking for community guidance on the industrial waterfront area for several reasons. Generally, waterfront land is valuable because of its great potential to attract people and commerce. Other cities have turned their riverfronts into tourist destinations.

In Philadelphia, available riverfront land is a rare commodity. In the Northeast, much of that commodity has been underutilized or left idle by a decline in large-scale manufacturing and industry. Besides the empty workshops and warehouses, the old businesses also left environmental contamination behind in some instances.

“One of the reasons (the waterfront) was chosen as a focus area is it has all of those unique challenges and opportunities together,” Klevan said. “What’s really nice about (our) process is it’s an opportunity to look at the area from a 10,000-foot level and it guides future discussions.”

Ultimately, planners will use community recommendations to propose zoning changes for the area that will guide the way the sites are marketed to potential developers.

As for Frankford Avenue, residents were asked to review the portion from Cottman Avenue south to Robbins Avenue. They were asked to recommend specific locations for improvements such as ornamental street lamps and banners, pedestrian safety devices, outdoor cafes and storefront remodeling. The planning commission will publish the results of those surveys in a forthcoming report.

As for Liddonfield, Klevan reported that the Philadelphia Housing Authority — which owns the site — is in the process of reviewing redevelopment proposals submitted to that agency as part of a bidding process. Citizens should contact PHA for information about that process, Klevan said. ••