For 15 years, Daniel Adair has had a 70-acre back yard.
That’s how long Adair has lived on Garden Street in Bridesburg, a quiet block north of the Betsy Ross Bridge.
He and his neighbors have a clear view of a fenced, unused field that was formerly the site of the Philadelphia Coke Co. The land stretches from the 4500 block of Richmond Street to the Delaware River, between Buckius and Orthodox streets.
All this time, he said he’s wondered why such a valuable natural resource would be locked up behind a fence, and when it would be given back to the neighborhood.
“You cannot get to the river from Bridesburg without walking through private or civic or state property,” Adair told Star. “But we got this big open stretch of land that we could open up, to make it to the river. People could sit down, and look at the river, and look at the boats, and look at things going along the trail.”
But now, Adair’s dreams of public use for the land may be stopped for good.
In December, City Councilman Bobby Henon (D-6th dist.) introduced zoning bill 121035 to rezone the area as I-3, or “heavy industrial.” The land is currently zoned for residential mixed use. The longtime industrial site was rezoned to residential in 2005 by a City Council vote, at the request of the Westrum Corp. and Hovnanian Homes, according to City Planning Commission planner Paula Brumbelow.
The CPC and Henon have since amended the rezoning proposal to a mix of “heavy industrial” by the Delaware River, “medium” for most of the land, and mixed industrial/commercial space between Lefevre and Buckius streets, adjacent to where Adair lives.
According to the Philadelphia Zoning Code, “heavy industrial” (I-3) zoning is for “intensive, high-impact uses, including extractive industries, petroleum processing, storage, terminals, tanks, pipes;” medium industrial” (I-2) is for “manufacturing, distribution, processing, industrial parks;” and industrial commercial mixed used (ICMX) is “is intended to serve as a buffer between Industrial districts and Commercial and Residential Districts.”
It is unclear what kind of developments, if any, will go up on this site.
“There’s a good opportunity here where you can create jobs,” Henon said of the land. “It’s been blighted for 30 years. We can put it to great use.”
While there are not yet any interested parties, according to Henon, rezoning to industrial could open the door to a variety of businesses, possibly blocking Adair and his neighbors from the Delaware River.
“They’re willing to make it industrial again to hurt this area that got rid of all the industrial,” Adair said. “I feel bad for the older people that lived in the area all their life. They like doing away with the stigma Bridesburg has of being the toxic dumping site of Philadelphia.”
But Henon said any industrial uses will be consistent with the neighborhood and subject to local approval.
“It’s not the manufacturing use that our grandparents knew; it’s not smokestacks. It’s clean manufacturing,” he said.
Councilman Henon held a neighborhood meeting last Wednesday at the American Legion Hall at Salmon and Orthodox streets about the rezoning proposal. He invited neighbors to join a working group that will develop a plan of how to best move forward with developing this land. The first meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 6 p.m.
But to neighbors like Adair, the prospect of industrial use for the area is particularly bitter because just a few years ago, Westrum Development Corp. had proposed building more than 900 homes in the area, and successfully lobbied the City Council to rezone the area to residential for the project. That plan was canceled in 2008 due to the housing market collapse, according to Westrum assistant vice president of development Larry McKnight.
“The project is no longer viable,” McKnight told Star. “The price to do environmental cleanup and infrastructure improvements were greater than what we can actually sell the houses for.”
That would have included capping the site to eliminate human contact with the existing soil, building roads and installing two feet of clean fill over the soil to provide safe green space, he said.
“Personally, I’d rather it stay residential,” Bridesburg Business Association president Joseph Slabinksi said of this area. “But realistically, the property’s never going to sell until the economy turns around and homes are being sought after.”
Henon also said that residential use is not realistic.
“There’s no residential market here. Not in five years. Maybe 10 years — but we’ve already waited 30 years,” he said.
A 2012 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicated that the Philadelphia Coke Co., which was in operation from 1927 to 1982, left behind by-products of their coking operation. Coke is a charcoal made from blended coal, which is used as fuel to smelt iron ore in the refining process that creates industrial-use metals, such as steel. The U.S. EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection designated this area a “brownfield,” which is the designation for a post-industrial site with contaminated soil.
“The developer, whoever buys that, is going to have address those issues,” Brumbelow said.
The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation owns 9.4 acres of the site, which may be kept as public land in the future for the Delaware Greenway trail along Delaware Avenue no matter who moves in, Brumbelow said.
An employee at Pennsylvania Environmental Council confirmed that it received about $80,000 in funding to help remove invasive plants and replant native species by the river for the Westrum project. That funding may still be used at this site.
But even with those assurances and the economic benefits of bringing businesses to the area, neighbors are still worried about the consequences of more industry in the area.
“Who needs all these extra dirt and trucks and pollution?” Slabinski asked. “The way we’re boxed in with the streets, we’re concerned if someone’s going to open up a business with 200 trucks coming in a day.”
Henon said that plans are in motion to expand Delaware Avenue to alleviate traffic.
“We need to be open to business,” he said. “Somebody needs to step up and take control here. I’m not going to wait.”
Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.