The news that a recent fire at the oil refinery in South Philadelphia was forcing Philadelphia Energy Solutions to close the plant brings into sharp relief the relationship among economic development, history, and city planning.
While the plant’s closing is an economic gut-punch to the city and region today, it presents Philadelphia with a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to think about what kind of city we want Philadelphia to become.
Philadelphia Energy Solutions holdings stretch over a stunning 1,400-acre waterfront assemblage between the neighborhood of Forgotten Bottom below Grays Ferry and Girard Point at the base of the Schuylkill near the Navy Yard. (For context, Center City Philadelphia is 1,200 acres.)
It is this pungent view that has viscerally welcomed generations of visitors and residents to Philadelphia who are arriving from the airport.
We can certainly do better.
Issues of environmental justice and climate change loom large. As do infrastructure and economic development.
Long a source of air pollution and river toxics, the oil fields are located in the low-lying marshlands of the Lower Schuylkill adjacent to the neighboring communities of Point Breeze, Southwest Philadelphia, and South Philadelphia. The fields are surgically divorced from the city grid by the Schuylkill Expressway.
The closing of the plant gives us the ability to reimagine the Schuylkill Expressway – a vestigial piece of 20th-century infrastructure certain to became obsolete by midcentury as new forms of mobility such as drones and autonomous vehicles reshape the transportation landscape.
And while we are at it, we can add mass transit connecting Center City and the airport with branch lines to the burgeoning employment centers of University City and the Navy Yard.
We can extend Philadelphia’s human-scaled city street grid over the 1,400 acres of former industrial land. We can pack a lot into this new urban acreage located within a stone’s throw of City Hall – everything from housing to economic development to recreation to new kinds of institutions.
We can create beautiful new riverfront parks with a Lower Schuylkill drive equally as glorious as the Kelly and King Drives on the Upper Schuylkill – arguably one of the most beautiful entrances to any city in the world.
In short, we will create a gleaming new riverfront neighborhood that becomes a green welcome mat to Philadelphia.
Many will ask how we can even think of developing such a heavily polluted site.
We can look no further than Hamburg’s exemplary HafenCity, where leaders of the German city transformed 600 acres of former port land into an elegant 21st-century extension of the city center based on principles of urbanity and sustainability with housing, employment, new transit lines, a striking symphony hall, and a new university focused on the built environment.
We can think of projects such as Peter Latz’s seminal Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord – the repurposing of the former Thyssen steel works in the Ruhr Valley of Germany, a 450-acre expanse that deployed phytoremediation – allowing plants to purify the soil – as a means for environmental soil remediation.
The Big U, a 10-mile innovative system of parks, berms, and deployable highway walls conceived by the Danish architecture firm BIG, demonstrates how to protect Lower Manhattan from floodwaters with lessons learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
And we can be inspired by the Principles for a Human City that undergird the impressive regeneration of 67 acres around Kings Cross Station in London by the developer Argent LLP. The site contains former gas works and includes office space, cultural institutions, schools, affordable and market-rate housing, a sparking public art program, and other public amenities.
To the naysayers, I say, we’ve done it before.
Just ask the planners of Fairmount Park in the 19th century when they consolidated the land along the Upper Schuylkill to protect Philadelphia’s water supply. They created a unique 4,000-acre working landscape composed of East and West Parks and the Wissahickon from an area that included then-active industrial sites.
The next time you drive home from the airport unceremoniously snaking your way past the oil tank farms and the aging industrial infrastructure, imagine a shimmering Schuylkill reflecting cerulean skies, framed with elegant greenswards, trails and parks serving a bustling new riparian community with the proud towers of Center City calling in the distance.
Let’s make this the picture that we paint today and allow it to mature over the next 150 years.