Wawa is all over the Delaware waterfront this week, and that's fine. It's the rest of the year that's the problem.
For the 10th year, the convenience store chain is the main sponsor of Welcome America, the big birthday bash that Philadelphia puts on to celebrate America's founding. Like the city itself, the festivities begin on the Delaware and move inland, with a mouthwatering selection of music, food, and fireworks.
Unfortunately, Wawa now seems intent on making its presence on the waterfront a permanent thing. After briefly abandoning the Center City market a few years back, it has made an aggressive return, opening outposts on what seems like every other corner of Chestnut and Walnut Streets. The next frontier appears to be Philadelphia's Central Delaware.
In a matter of just a few months, Wawa has proposed not one, but two, suburban-style Super Wawa stores along the river, complete with gas pumps and generous amounts of parking. It started its campaign late last year when it focused on a site in South Philadelphia owned by developer Bart Blatstein. Although Blatstein put the plan on hold after receiving intense pushback from the nearby Pennsport neighborhood, the company is steaming ahead with a similar store-and-gas-station combo at Front and Spring Garden in Northern Liberties, a block inland from the water. Knowing Wawa, and its penchant for territorial domination, this looks more like a coordinated strategy than a simple coincidence.
Given the cultlike worship of Wawa in Philadelphia, I feel the need to state here that I've got nothing against the chain, and even enjoy a Shorti now and then. I also believe that any well-run, well-stocked convenience store could be a terrific amenity for Philadelphia's underserved waterfront. If the proposed stores were incorporated into a residential or commercial building, I would heartily welcome Wawa to the river.
But the made-for-the-highway Super Wawa is the wrong form for these two locations. What is particularly troubling is that Wawa chose to pursue the two projects even though it knows full well that the city's zoning code forbids such car-oriented developments on the Central Delaware. The restriction was adopted in 2011 as part of the waterfront master plan — a plan that was a product of a lengthy series of community meetings. To win the zoning variances it needs for the two stores, Wawa would have to subvert that public consensus. The Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, Central Delaware Advocacy Group, and the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. all oppose it.
You could argue that the waterfront already has plenty of auto-friendly businesses, so what's a couple more. It's that kind of thinking that got us in the mess we're in today. For decades, Delaware Avenue was treated like a dumping ground for strip malls and gas stations, and their existence has eroded the waterfront's urban character and walkability. The purpose of the master plan is to steer this area in a new direction.
Urbanization doesn't happen overnight, but the waterfront has experienced a series of small victories in the last seven years, from pier parks to the new Fringe Arts theater to One Water Street, a 16-story apartment building. If you walk around Wawa's proposed site on Spring Garden Street today, you'll be struck by the astonishing number of new apartments and townhouses, all creeping toward the water.
More are coming, too. It looks as if a plan by the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. to build a large, mixed-use complex on Festival Pier is finally gathering steam. The project could ultimately bring 550 apartments and 30,000 square feet of retail to Delaware Avenue.
Ironically, the Festival Pier development is what precipitated the latest Super Wawa proposal. When not hosting concerts, the pier has long served as a parking lot for several nearby businesses, including an office building across the street. About 125 spaces will be eliminated when Festival Pier is shut down at the end of the summer.
To make up for the loss, Michael Grasso, of Metro Development, wants to combine two bad projects into one: His plan would make the Super Wawa a tenant in a five-story, 320-car garage. The parking structure would occupy the entire block between Spring Garden and Fairmount Avenue, between Front and Beach Streets — a site that happens to be one block from the Market-Frankford El stop. Wawa's gas pumps would be on the corner of Beach, right next to the existing Lukoil gas station.
On top of everything else, Grasso is seeking a permit to demolish the sole remaining building on the site, a handsome, early-20th-century brick structure that was once owned by the Philadelphia Transit Co., SEPTA's predecessor. The soaring one-story building most likely served as an electrical substation and is one of the few remaining relics of the waterfront's industrial past that is still standing in the vicinity It's easy to imagine it as a theater or restaurant. Sacrificing it for parking is a huge waste.
I asked Grasso why he thought a parking garage was a good use for a site with such excellent transit connections. He told me that the tenants in his office building — including the city's Board of Elections — are demanding that he replace the 125 spaces being eliminated at Festival Pier. The lease from Wawa would enable him to finance the garage's construction.
All right then, how about designing a smaller garage and making it part of an apartment building? Wawa can lease the ground floor, just as it has done elsewhere in Center City. A traditional street-wall building, inhabited by human beings instead of cars, would bring life to Spring Garden Street and tie together the string of new residential developments. Maybe one day the Lukoil gas station would even be replaced.
What happens on Festival Pier will determine the future of the Delaware waterfront. Unlike most of the land along the river, the pier site is fully integrated into Center City and its transit network. Think of the new mixed-use project as the waterfront's main anchor. Let's not let the lure of Wawa coffee and its hoagies undermine the revival we've been waiting for on the Delaware.