Nine years after the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market began looking for a new home, it's finally about to get one.
The 686,000-square-foot building is nearly complete - a bright and airy indoor mall that will cater to the public, commercial chain stores, small mom-and-pop groceries, restaurants, schools, and government buyers.
The concourse, under a quarter-mile-long skylight, will be lined with fruit and vegetable shops where consumers can purchase strawberries, lettuce, or pears by the crate or case at wholesale prices.
Next to the shops, forklifts will whisk 20-foot pallets of apples, zucchini, tomatoes, and peppers from trucks to vendors' cold-storage stalls.
Over the shops are colorful banners announcing each merchant - including Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., Quaker City Produce Co., Kaleck Bros. Inc., and John Vena Inc.
"We're getting real close. People just need to focus on getting it done," said Gregory Iannarelli, chief counsel of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, owner of the site and the market's landlord.
Contractors were putting finishing touches on the 2,800-ton refrigeration system last week. Crews were polishing the skylight and cleaning dust and debris from floors.
"It's the New York Stock Exchange of fruits and vegetables," boasted developer Brian O'Neill, whose Essington Avenue Partners II L.P. and Merion Construction Group built the $218.5 million private-public project.
Twenty-six merchants will move from their antiquated quarters at the 51-year-old produce terminal in South Philadelphia in February to the new market at 6700 Essington Ave., across from the auto mall and near the airport.
"It really hasn't hit me yet," said Philadelphia Regional Produce Market executive director Sonny DiCrecchio. "I get excited when I'm over there. Now I'm just trying to get us in.
"My crystal ball tells me that we should be moving in throughout the month of February," he said. "There are a lot of punch list items that must be done first."
The market is divided into eight sections, each the size of a football field. Upstairs are offices where sales staffs will sell and trade fruits and vegetables around the world.
Downstairs is the display market and warehouse, which traces its roots to William Penn and the wharves on Dock Street, now the site of the Sheraton Society Hill hotel.
"Absolutely, we are excited," said Joseph Procacci, who started the business in 1948 with his brother and runs it today with his son, J.M.
Procacci Bros. specializes in tomatoes, and it has growing operations in Florida, Puerto Rico, Mexico, California, New Jersey, and North Carolina. "We've been told we grow about 20 percent of the tomatoes in the United States," he said.
The new market will enable businesses to expand and have proper refrigeration. Merchants can regulate the temperature from 33 to 50 degrees in their individual stalls to keep produce sanitary from field to customer.
The new market is more than double the space of the current market and is fully refrigerated with 224 enclosed refrigerated loading docks to ensure the cold chain is never broken.
"We will have the freshest produce and be a model for state-of-the-art terminal markets worldwide," said Peter Storey, whose grandfather started Quaker City Produce in 1954. "We are champing at the bit to get over there," said sales manager Kevin McNicholas of Quaker City, which sells 40 to 50 products and specializes in strawberries and romaine lettuce.
The market employs 1,500 and will be hiring. About 250 new jobs are expected in the first year, DiCrecchio said.
Because refrigerating the common areas, including concourses and loading docks, will be expensive, DiCrecchio said he worked with engineers to develop one central engine room with five compressors. The refrigeration system is believed to be the "largest in the world ever built" for a produce market, he said.
The $218.5 million public-private financing includes $152.5 million from Pennsylvania, a $50 million loan from American International Group Inc., a $12 million low-interest loan from Pennvest, a $3 million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a $750,000 job-creation grant.
Under the deal, the port authority owns the 48-acre site for 40 years. After that, the market can buy it for $1, assuming it has paid all its rent.
As he led a tour of the new market last week, O'Neill pointed to the many modern innovations.
"Philadelphia now has the best food facility in the entire world. Every week somebody from another city, around the world and around the country, is coming here to marvel at this accomplishment," he said. "This great facility does not exist anywhere else."
The path to a new terminal has been long and arduous, including incentives offered by New Jersey to try to lure the market across the Delaware River.
Not all of the battles are over.
In August, nearly two years after construction began, a Baltimore architect and Maryland real estate advisory firm sued O'Neill's companies, and the project architect, TranSystems Inc., for copyright infringement, alleging the designs, drawings, and plans for the market were prepared and owned by them.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, asserts that between 2000 and 2006, Colimore Thoemke Architects Inc. and Lee Real Estate Advisors L.L.C. created and presented designs for sites at the Navy Yard and Delaware and Oregon Avenues. "This design became the basis for all subsequent designs of the market and its construction," the suit says.
TranSystems later drew into the case the Philadelphia Fresh Fruit Terminal Corp., which represents the vendors, and the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, as defendants.
"They had some concepts of how concourses went, but the design they originally showed us did not work because they could not refrigerate it," DiCrecchio recalled.
As for the walkable concourse, "It's a standard mall design," he said. "There's a market that's been out there for 10 years in Verona, Italy, that is very similar to this. So it's not new."
Produce Market: Vital Statistics
Size in square feet; 1,294 feet in length (just under a quarter of a mile)
Yearly projected sales
Peak construction jobs
Enclosed refrigerated docks
Temperature range in degrees Fahrenheit among the vendor stalls
SOURCE: PRPA and produce marketEndText
Take a photographic tour of the new Philadelphia Regional Produce Market at http://go.philly.com/terminalEndText