By Brian Rademaekers
Residents living around the former Pathan Chemical site on Moyer Street in Fishtown may be about to trade a decades-long nuisance for a much shorter-lived headache – that of construction vehicles.
Neighbors got an update last week on the latest developments at the site, an irregular plot of land sitting between Moyer and Thompson streets about a block west of the Fishtown Recreation Center.
After years of stop-and-start efforts to clean up the officially designated federal Superfund site and bring in development, it appears plans to break ground on a new residential development are at hand.
Currently owned by the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, the 427-447 Moyer St. lot was formerly home to a shuttered chemical company that caught fire in the 1990s after experiencing years of break-ins and vandalism.
Since then, neighbors have been frustrated by efforts to get the site cleaned up and bring in new development.
Residents have heard about the proposed homes, dubbed “Awesometown” by the developer, Postgreen, for years.
But cleanup efforts that took place in 2007 and 2008 failed to bring the property in line with statewide safety standards, and the project stalled. In 2011, NKCDC brought a new company, RT Environmental Services, on board to further oversee cleanup.
Representatives from RT, NKCDC and Postgreen gathered with residents at the Fishtown Rec on Wednesday, March 5, to provide an update that laid out plans to further address issues with contamination at the site and finally get homes built.
The primary problem at the Moyer Street lot stems from chemicals classified as “volatile organic compounds.”
While VOCs come from a number of sources, RT President Gary Brown said the chemicals in the soil on Moyer Street are byproducts of the textile industry.
His company formed a cleanup and containment plan that blocks potentially harmful gases from entering the planned homes — and allows NKCDC and Postgreen to obtain financing needed to get Awesometown off the ground.
“If we have vapors in the ground, we don’t want them to build up,” Brown explained to the crowd at last Wednesday’s meeting.
The proposed vapor barrier, he said, is essentially a plastic shield that will sit between the soil and the foundation of the homes.
In addition, a ventilation system will run from the soil to the roof of the homes, with pipes allowing any harmful gases to slowly escape above the roofs.
Workers will also be removing more soil from the site; cleanup efforts in 2007 involved removing between 3 and 5 feet of dirt from most places. At that time, contractors hired to clean the site and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection believed removing the soil would allow the remaining contaminants to naturally dissipate over time.
“Unfortunately, that didn’t happen,” said Brown, adding that “hotspots” can continue to cause problems even after most of the polluted soil has been removed.
His company has continued testing the site, with the most recent test taking place in January.
While there were concerns about dust and dirt during the 2007 round of remediation, Brown said that shouldn’t be an issue this time around.
If there’s any problem with dust during construction, “it will get shut down until it’s resolved,” Brown said, noting there should be no visible emissions.
“The idea here is not to interfere with what you’re doing” in the neighborhood, Brown said. “It all needs to be done by the book. It needs to be done right. For the workers that will be there, they need to follow set practices, and they will be told what’s in the soil.”
Brown said that while residents are concerned about metals like lead in the soil, that’s only a minor concern at the Pathan site. “Metals are not the problem, volatile organics are the problem,” he said.
The concentration of lead at the site is at 13 parts per billion, he said, putting it on par with many empty city lots and well below what is found at sites along the river in Fishtown.
The acceptable concentration of lead for drinking water is, for comparison, 5 parts per billion.
Brown said they are also in contact with Alexander Adaire School staff because the school is right across the street from the site.
“If we find anything on the site and it’s going to impact [the school], it’s our responsibility to notify them,” Brown told residents. “You can complain to make it get shut down,” Brown said. “That’s how it works.”
When finished, the “Awesometown” development will have 14 homes – eight facing Moyer Street, four facing Thompson Street, and two along the eastern edge of the property.
Included will be an interior courtyard with parking for the homes and fenced-off yards.
Following the standards of the company’s brand, Postgreen President Chad Ludeman said the homes will boast “extreme energy efficiency” and superior indoor air quality and be highly efficient in terms of water use.
Efforts to make Awesometown a low-impact development include making the pavement for the site permeable, which cuts back on stormwater runoff. Other eco-friendly features include full green roofs – soil and living plants instead of shingles or a waterproof surface – and built-in rain barrels that will further reduce storm runoff from the site and give residents an off-the-grid source of water for things like watering plants and washing cars.
“These features allow the site to be active in the management of stormwater,” Ludeman told residents.
Another distinct feature of the development will be a financing structure that allows four of the homes to be “subsidized” by slightly higher pricing for the 10 homes going at market rate.
Ludeman said they expect the non-subsidized homes to be sold in “high $300,000s, right under $400,000.”
Marketing of the homes is set to kick off with a launch party on Wednesday, March 19, at Lloyd Whiskey Bar, 529 E. Girard Ave.
Once they confirm two presales for the site, the bank financing the project will kick in enough funds for the whole development, according to Postgreen and NKCDC, and construction will begin.
Ludeman expects there to be strong demand for the Awesometown homes, despite the property’s troubled past. “Two of the other projects we’re working on in the city right now, one in South Philly and one in Francisville, sold out before we had framed out a single home,” Ludeman said.
Kevin Gray, real estate development director at NKCDC, said at the meeting that they decided to start collecting names for possible buyers for the non-market rate homes as soon as possible, and they’ll be looking for applicants at the March 19 marketing kickoff.
“The official application will be available once we get it printed and online,” Gray said.
Details of who will qualify for the affordable homes will be released once marketing begins.
This is all good news to Carol Phillips, who helped form a committee of concerned Moyer Street residents back in 2005.
“For 12 years, we’ve had to live with a Rent-a-Fence secured by sandbags at this site,” said Phillips, a longtime resident of Moyer Street who has had an active role in pushing for cleanup and development of the site.
While she’s one of the toughest critics of the long and often haphazard process that has seen the property morph from an abandoned chemical warehouse to blighted lot to a site of future residential development, Phillips is ready to see progress.
“I’m glad there’s going to be more cleanup and that things are going to start happening,” Phillips said. “I just wish we had been more informed along the way.” ••