Philadelphia officials are looking for a developer to remake a valuable tract of city-owned land just off South Philly's thriving East Passyunk corridor.
Bounded by 11th and 12th streets, Wharton and Reed, the Passyunk Square redevelopment site is now home to a municipal services complex. Tucked behind an Acme grocery store at the site of the old Moyamensing Prison on Passyunk Avenue, a police station, fire station, Licenses and Inspections survey unit, sprawling fleet management complex, and even a branch of the Office of Innovation and Technology coexist on the elbow-shaped tract. But many of these uses are no longer compatible with the rowhouse neighborhood and city officials see a chance to repurpose the site for housing and "artisan" businesses.
The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation will release a request for proposals on Friday, said Paul Chrystie, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Department of Planning and Development in an email. All of the parcels included in the RFP are owned by the city.
Community leaders support the move.
“There’s a lot of unused space in that area and there’s certainly a better use for it,” said Sarah Anton, President of the Passyunk Square Civic Association. “One thing you hear from neighbors is that it’s a dark abandoned corner of the neighborhood. Walking back there at night, it's like no- man’s land. So there’s a lot of opportunity back there.”
The site is one of the last significant pieces of underdeveloped land in the dense and increasingly desirable rowhouse area. Houses in Passyunk Square have been gaining value for years with the median sold home price most recently reported at $370,000.
A bill introduced at the end of September by Councilman Mark Squilla would pave the way for residential development, altering the zoning from an industrial-commercial zoning district to an industrial-residential category that could couple multi-family housing with “artisan industry.”
The legislation would also rezone a parcel that used to contain a parochial school from single-family to multi-family zoning, to reflect the fact that apartments already exist there.
Officials said the plan is expected to keep fire, police and L&I services on the site while the sprawling fleet management complex will be cleared to make way for new buildings. No final decisions have been made but the development is expected to include a new, larger fire station.
The site has long been inappropriate for fleet maintenance and repair because of the neighborhood’s residential character. Fleet Management's larger Hunting Park facility, in contrast, is surrounded by auto-oriented and light industrial uses. The existing fire station is so outmoded that it can barely accommodate contemporary trucks — a not uncommon problem.
In 2015, the Planning Commission's South District Plan highlighted the unsuitability of the infrastructure that is now on the site and recommended putting housing there.
“Municipal services are not always served well by the current block configuration which is awkward and inefficient,” the plan reads in a section on the possibilities for the parcel. “City-owned land also presents some of the few opportunities in the entire South district to direct new development to meet the needs of vulnerable populations such as seniors and to provide multi-family housing options.”
The South District Plan called for redeveloping the site with 100-to-150 new housing units, 15,000-to-20,000 square feet of retail space, and 150-to-200 parking spaces. There is already a Parking Authority lot on the site facing Columbus Square to the west.
The South District Plan also suggests improving walkability by removing curb cuts, extending the curb into the street, planting street trees, and providing a walking connection through the municipal services site to allow for easier access to Columbus Square from the east.
The Planning Commission unanimously recommended Squilla’s remapping bill for passage at the same Oct. 16 meeting where it approved the last section of the city’s comprehensive plan, giving Philadelphia an updated citywide plan for the first time since the 1960s.
“I want to congratulate the staff on their quick work,” said Anne Fadullon, director of the city's planning and development department. “An hour and a half ago we approved the last part of the comprehensive plan, and now we’re already moving on to implementation.”
Squilla’s bill will next need to be considered before City Council’s Rules Committee.