Economically depressed Chester City has approved yet another plan to revitalize its waterfront — an ambitious rework that could take as long as 15 years.
“Chester is a tight-knit community full of character and heart,” Tom Shoemaker, president of the Riverfront Alliance of Delaware County (RADC), the group heading the master plan, said in a statement this week. “This plan outlines the strategy to safely connect the riverfront to the city and provide new opportunities for growth and development.”
The plan, based on input from city officials, businesses and residents, aims to improve how people get to Chester and navigate the city by allowing greater access to cyclists, pedestrians, and public transit.
Eventually, the RADC said, it expects to construct a marina, park, and multifamily residential building by the waterfront, and create a public art program. No projected costs were disclosed.
“With any development, it really brings a lot of good things to the city,” William Morgan, a councilman and deputy mayor in Chester, said in an interview.
The master plan is to be executed in phases, officials said, with the first focusing on “public investment” to “encourage private investment in the next five years."
In total, the project is expected to affect about 100 acres, from Highland Avenue to Norris Street in the city’s West End. It will span part of Route 291 and Reaney and Engle Streets, both of which are close to 291, a highly traveled thoroughfare in Chester. The area is close to Chester’s I-95 exit, and SEPTA has a station nearby.
Engle Street is unpaved and scattered with debris, Morgan said. “We currently have two active businesses on Engle...," he said of Joe’s Building & Plumbing Supply and the Larimer Beer Co., “so that’ll beautify that road and beautify the businesses as well."
The goal of the master plan is to draw in more companies, invite tourism, and improve the public’s image of Chester, the oldest city in Pennsylvania, which was a prosperous industrial hub until it deteriorated after World War II as factories closed and residents left for new jobs.
The RADC’s master plan is reminiscent of multiple past promises to bring prosperity back to long-struggling Chester, with limited success.
The latest waterfront proposal was announced five months after Gov. Tom Wolf declared a fiscal emergency in Chester because of the coronavirus. Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development created an emergency action plan a few days later, which included a hiring freeze and limited overtime.
The emergency plan also instructed Chester officials to “eliminate benefits for employees who have been terminated or temporarily laid off where legally permissible, freeze discretionary spending, restrict the incurrence of new debt, review its assets, and implement disciplined financial monitoring and reporting.”
The RADC did not disclose the cost of the redevelopment but said some funding could come from Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development, which provided waterfront development tax credits.
The waterfront tax credit program, which Pennsylvania officials created in 2016 under a law called Act 84, gives tax credits to businesses that give cash or personal property to waterfront development projects.
Tax credits in a single waterfront development project cannot be more than $1.5 million in a fiscal year, according to Pennsylvania law.
The Chester Economic Development Authority, the Chester Redevelopment Authority, M&T Bank Charitable Foundation, Peco, the Philadelphia Union, and Power Home Remodeling, as well as other organizations, also agreed to contribute to the cost of the master plan, the RADC said.
Power Home Remodeling and Bryn Mawr Trust have already bought waterfront tax credits, it said, and a contractor was expected to begin work on Engle Street soon. The RADC said 100 blocks are anticipated to be improved in the master plan, as is the Commodore Barry Bridge Park.
“RADC and the City of Chester are committed to moving this plan forward,” said Lisa Gaffney, the RADC’s executive director. She noted that the first phase of the project would involve asking for grants and general help for the project from private companies and the state and federal government.
The RADC did not reveal how much its financial backers contributed, or planned to contribute.
For the better part of the last two decades, officials have tried to attract businesses that would build in the city and bring greater employment and interest to the area. It worked at times.
In January 2007, the New York City-based real estate investment trust Vici Properties opened Harrah’s, a 24/7 casino and racetrack.
A little more than three years later, in June 2010, officials welcomed what was then known as PPL Park, the $122 million, 18,500-seat Major League Soccer stadium funded by the state, Delaware County, and the Delaware River Port Authority.
The stadium has changed names twice since it opened. From 2016 to 2019, the stadium was Talen Energy Stadium. This year, it changed to Subaru Park, after the Camden-based auto company signed a partnership agreement in exchange for naming rights.
In between the construction of the casino and the soccer stadium, Chester signed off on a waterfront transformation plan — an overly ambitious one not entirely aligned with reality, Gaffney remarked in hindsight — in 2008. The ensuing recession upended much of the plan.
The waterfront plan presented this year is “aspirational but still doable,” Gaffney said.
“The planning process was undertaken by a strong partnership including the City of Chester, Delaware County, nonprofit organizations and the local business community,” she said, “and all of these entities will be involved in implementation.”
Harrah’s and Subaru Park are among the largest employers in Chester. Others include the audiovisual company Biamp; the Chester Water Authority; the chemical company Evonik; Fisher Tank Co.; Kimberly-Clark, which makes personal care items that include toilet paper and diapers; the Union soccer team; Power Home Remodeling; and Widener University.
Some Chester residents who spoke with officials organizing the master plan said they were concerned about gentrification and the possibility of eventually being priced out of their neighborhoods, but Morgan, the councilman, said the remarks were common in communities where major development takes place.
In Chester, he said, “I believe there are many factors that go into pushing out the current residents that exist in any community, whether it’s real estate taxes or making sure the current residents are given the opportunity to get jobs, and we’re preparing them ahead of time to get that kind of training." Residents could “still live here and benefit from future development.”
Of the city’s approximately 34,000 residents, the median household income from 2014 to 2018 was around $31,000, according to the U.S. Census, much lower than the county at large at $71,500. Chester’s poverty rate was 33.6%, compared with the county’s 8.8%.
“It was critical to us to incorporate as much community feedback as possible into the development process," said Shoemaker, RADC’s president, "ensuring that this transformation incorporates the goals and aspirations of local residents for the future of the waterfront.”