On a recent afternoon I set out to explore the Lower Schuylkill study area with Andrew Goodman, a planner with PennPraxis (a consultant on the Master Plan), as my guide.
We traversed the Lower Schuylkill from Forgotten Bottom to the lost landscape below the Platt Bridge and back again. We stood on the Passyunk Avenue Bridge and took in the vista (and fumes) from the PGW and Sunoco lands, and we visited pockets of green at Common Ground Garden by the airport and along the Gray’s Ferry Crescent
. We saw places where the sidewalk ends and the grid disappears. We poked around the many rail lines and peeked into old industrial buildings.
At the northern end of the study area the parcels are smaller, more fragmented, and the landscape bears the record of old industrial uses clustered and oriented toward the river, mixed in with special sites like the Woodlands or Bartram’s Garden. As you head south the river becomes less accessible, something to cross instead of experience. The parcels get bigger. Larger residential areas like Eastwick dip down into otherwise anonymous expanses of suburban-style office and industrial parks near auto retail and the Food Distribution Center. And then there is everything we need but don’t know where else to put: The Least Restrictive Zoning World where scrap yards and strip clubs set up next door to one another; waste treatment facilities; a lonely tugboat operator.
It’s a big, complicated place. But it also represents an extraordinary set of economic and environmental opportunities for the city. Here are four observations about the future of the Lower Schuylkill based on what I saw on the ground:
Seeing growth through the grit
The area just south of University Avenue, from University City to Bartram’s Garden, is peppered with smaller parcels, older industrial buildings and residential pockets on both sides of the river. And it’s here that the potential for a new, productive future is easiest to imagine.
We often hear that our city’s “Meds and Eds” are the drivers of our economy, and today’s research is tomorrow’s startup. But University City’s institutions (Penn, Drexel, Wistar, Science Center, University of the Sciences, etc.) are space-constrained. That means it’s difficult to for researchers and inventors to scale up new innovations from the institutional setting through early product development and manufacturing. It’s in the city’s interest to keep that creative, economic power here and it’s in the startup’s interest to stay close to institutional brainpower. The Lower Schuylkill’s got a lot of underused industrial properties – from labs to factories - that could become institutionally supported incubators or cheap startup space.
On the eastern side (aka South shore) Penn’s acquisition of DuPont’s Marshall Labs
offers a preview of what this incubator future could look like. There are plenty of properties, some publicly held, waiting for new uses. The Streets Department property along Gray’s Avenue at 50th Street is one such example. Maybe even the former MAB Paint factory on Gray’s Avenue at 52nd Street. If Streets opts to leave its sprawling property stretching to the river, and the MAB factory doesn’t become a reentry facility
, these properties provide a lot of space for productive new enterprises.
Here are a few old industrial properties along Gray's Avenue: