The Lower Schuylkill: From Hidden to Hotbed?

The moniker “hidden river” – the middle-Dutch meaning of schuylkill – is perhaps nowhere more apt a description for our region’s famous body of water than the 7-mile segment that stretches southward from University City to the confluence with the Delaware River near the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Historically a center for heavy industry, today the area surrounding this stretch of water bears unmistakable scars from the decades-long contraction of the industrial sector in the region. The 3,700-acre tract, which city planners and economic development professionals have taken to calling the “Lower Schuylkill” – contains 68% of the city’s vacant or underutilized industrial land and is largely isolated from adjoining neighborhoods thanks to little in the way of street and transit connections or public access to the river. For the average Philadelphian, the Lower Schuylkill is terra incognita ­– a large swath of land wedged between Center City and PHL Airport that somehow has remained mysteriously unfamiliar. Last month, during a visit to the area by a group of 35 business and civic leaders as part of the Economy League’s Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange, at least half couldn’t help but ask, “Wait – where exactly are we?”


Given the depth and breadth of challenges facing the Lower Schuylkill, it came as a surprise to many in our group that public and private leaders are turning their attention to the area as a potential regional center for growth and jobs. Aspirations for the area crystallized earlier this year with the release of the Lower Schuylkill Master Plan by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) and the City of Philadelphia. Those with a hand in developing the plan believe that underneath the scars of industrial decline lie powerful building blocks for a productive modern industrial district. First, there’s the area’s sheer size. And, though it proved difficult for many folks to get a handle on during last week’s visit, the area boasts numerous locational advantages: it encompasses or is adjacent to major transportation assets including the river itself, PHL airport, I-76, I-95, and major freight rail lines, and is sandwiched between three regional economic hubs in Center City, University City, and the Navy Yard. There’s also the district’s surprisingly diverse collection of remaining assets, including the longest continuously-operating refinery on the East Coast, a 23-acre former DuPont industrial campus now controlled by the University of Pennsylvania, the world’s largest fully enclosed, fully refrigerated wholesale produce terminal, and the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America.


These bright spots make it easier to imagine a productive future for the district, though realizing the vision that the master plan put forward of the Lower Schuylkill as a home for globally competitive hubs of innovation, energy, and logistics is going to require significant public and private interventions. On the public side, the plan envisions $411 million in targeted infrastructure investments over 22 years, with $76 million marked for the first seven years. Priority improvements focus on making it easier to get into and around the district through extensive improvements to existing streets and bridges, enhanced connections to the street grid, and a new primary north-south road along the west bank of the Schuylkill River. The plan also calls for substantial public investment in green infrastructure improvements and public amenities, including stormwater management systems, new parks, and the extension of the Schuylkill Banks trail through the district. Many of the planned investments are directly in line with the infrastructure strategies laid out in the World Class Infrastructure GPS earlier this year.


The hope is that these and other public investments will set the stage for an influx of private investment and community involvement that will carry the Lower Schuylkill’s transformation forward. Given the scale of the ambitions for the area, there’s little question that real progress will be linked to the ability of the many public, private, and community partners with a stake in the district to come together around the master plan’s shared agenda. So it was encouraging to see during our visit that there are already several efforts underway demonstrating the commitment of a number of organizations and agencies.


At the University of Pennsylvania’s South Bank campus, the University’s director of real estate development Paul Sehnert led a discussion on Penn’s ongoing development of the 23-acre former DuPont property into a hub for startup companies and center for commercialization of university research. The property at 34th Street and Grays Ferry Avenue is a major component of the northern end of the innovation district imagined in the master plan. The presence and commitment of Penn, with its deep pockets and potent research pipeline, send a powerful signal about the real-world viability of the Lower Schuylkill as a home for innovation.


About a mile south of the Penn property, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation First Deputy Commissioner Mark Focht and John Bartram Association Executive Director Maitreyi Roy led our group on a walking tour of Bartram’s Garden, the city-owned 45-acre National Historic Landmark and botanic garden on the banks of the Schuylkill River near 54th Street and Lindbergh Avenue. Focht and Roy discussed the development of Bartram’s Mile, the continuation of the popular Schuylkill Banks trail from Grays Ferry Avenue through Bartram’s Garden to 58th Street. The Philadelphia Parks and Recreation project, which will provide a crucial connection from University City into the southern end of the Lower Schuylkill innovation district while enhancing local stormwater management capacity, is fully funded and has been fast-tracked for construction in 2014-2015.


On the other side of the river, in the shadow of the Passyunk Avenue Bridge, Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ (PES) Senior Vice President for Strategic Planning Steve Herzog led the group on a bus tour around the company’s massive 1,400-acre refining complex. A familiar sight to anyone who’s made the trip on I-76 between Center City and the Philadelphia International Airport, the 140-year old refinery was wholly owned and operated by Sunoco (or its predecessors, Sun Oil Co. and Sun Company, Inc.) for just about all of those years. Today, following a period of time in 2011 when Sunoco announced plans to either sell or shutter the refinery and the complex’s future and its nearly 1,000 jobs was thrown up into the air, PES - a joint venture between majority owner The Carlyle Group and Sunoco, Inc. - has ambitious plans to leverage America’s recent energy production resurgence.


With capacity for processing 330,000 barrels of crude oil per day (nearly 14 million gallons), the refinery complex is the eighth-largest oil refinery in the United States and the largest on the eastern seaboard. PES is taking steps to enhance productivity and exploring opportunities to tap into the Commonwealth’s booming natural gas industry being driven by the Marcellus Shale. Herzog showed off the company’s recently completed multi-million dollar high-speed train unloader (supported by $25 million in state funds), which will enable the company to shift more of its focus to domestic crude oil arriving via rail from North Dakota and less on foreign crude coming in by tanker. PES’s investments promise to reestablish the refinery complex as a major economic driver for the region just a short time after its very existence was in doubt. Looking ahead, City officials hope that PES will serve as the cornerstone for a Lower Schuylkill energy corridor that will attract other energy-related firms and associated jobs and economic activity.


These tour stops showcased the diversity of activity underway within the Lower Schuylkill and helped paint a picture of how the right mix of public and private investment could very well bring the master plan’s ambitious vision to fruition. It’s early days for the revitalization effort, though. Moving forward, all eyes will be on the diverse collection of organizations, agencies, institutions, and community groups with a stake in the area to see if they’re able to sustain the budding ethos of collaboration that will make or break the Lower Schuylkill’s chances of transforming from an underperforming tract of industrial land on the banks of the hidden river into a magnet for modern industry and driver of regional growth.