CHESTER — Stakeholders are not willing to let history repeat itself when it comes to economic downturns and redevelopment on the West End waterfront. Public and private officials unveiled the initial findings of the Riverfront Alliance of Delaware County’s Chester Master Waterfront Plan last week with a private media event at the Philadelphia Union’s Subaru Park, followed by a public Zoom meeting.
Boston-based architectural firm NBBJ, in consultation with Chicago-based Hunden Straetgic Advisors, laid out the plan for the area bounded by Highland Avenue to Norris Street and the Delaware River to Route 291. Early actions will begin this month, with full build out estimated over 15 years.
With NBBJ’s contract let last October, the plans were crafted over the course of the COVID-19 lockdowns after late 2019 meeting with local residents, business owners and other stakeholders. Officials are confident the plan will not die out as did the prior decade’s redevelopment efforts, which saw only the Union’s then-PPL Park come to fruition in the aftermath of the 2008 recession.
“This isn’t a plan that we’ll allow to sit dormant. I know we’re going to put forth every effort to make sure we are able to develop our waterfront and complement the already brilliant entity that we have sitting on our waterfront,” said City Councilman William Morgan during the public call.
“We know that the plan is a living, breathing document and has to be flexible and accommodate the conditions on the ground. We have the plan as a starting guide and will move into implementation,” Lisa Gaffney, RADC executive director and Chester Economic Development Authority executive director, said during the call.
The unveiling comes after Gov. Tom Wolf declared a fiscal emergency for the city in April, prompting the appointment of a state receiver after 25 years as a financially distressed municipality under Act 47. Receiver Michael Doweary’s initial August reiterated the longtime call for shoring up the city’s economic activity and tax base. The waterfront plan has brought together funding from RADC’s member organizations and others to aid in economic redevelopment. Major sponsors joining city and RADC funding include PECO, the Philadelphia Union, M&T Bank and the state Department of Community & Economic Development (administrators of the Act 47 program).
Those on hand for Tuesday’s unveiling included state Sen. Tom Killion, R-9 of Middletown, who championed the infrastructure projects’ waterfront tax credits. “It’s a regional gem,” said Killion staffer John M. McNichol. “Sen. Killion also presents Chester County as far as West Chester. You can get to West Chester from here in 25 minutes – it really is a regional opportunity.”
The unveiled plans call for two phases of development in the area, bringing in pop-in and permanent retail, hotels and restaurants, indoor sporting and concert facilities, and expanded park and marina space. A series of infrastructure improvements – set to start next week with repaving the unit block of Engle Street – will serve as a preamble to the two phases.
“We are designated by the state … as a waterfront organization so we were able to apply for Waterfront Development Tax Credits,” Gaffney told the Times during the media event. Bryn Mawr Trust purchased $65,000 in credits and Power Home Remodeling purchased $150,000 to fund the repaving from Route 291 to the CSX railroad tracks. The project will install a sidewalk, curbs, and electrical conduit for eventual lighting. It is the first step in improving Engle, pegged as the primary entrance to the waterfront in NBBJ’s plans.
The improvements will remove some driveway space from early waterfront investor The Larimer Beer Company. “We made accommodations to keep their business as active as possible with outdoor seating. It also won’t be interfering with (Philadelphia Union) games,” who are currently playing without spectators, said Gaffney. “In a strange way it’s good timing because it won’t be interfering with traffic.”
RADC has applied for $570,000 in tax credits for Reaney Street improvements, the approval status of which are not yet known. “It’ll be narrowing (the paved street) and increasing the sidewalk width, because that street is a main entrance into the stadium,” said Gaffney. The redesign is in line with NBBJ’s calls for easier foot- and bicycle traffic accessibility to the waterfront.
To further expand on that goal, RADC and elected officials have convened a Route 291 task force to address safety issues, traffic calming, and installing a center median. Crosswalk equipped intersections are planned for Highland Avenue and Jeffrey, Reaney, Flower and Norris streets.
The master plan initiative took shape in early 2019 when RADC issued a RFP to 23 architectural firms, resulting in five candidates evaluated during the summer.
“About a year ago we came together and said ‘We really need a vision for what’s happening here,’” said Philadelphia Union President Tim McDermott during Tuesday’s media event. “I feel like we finally have that … it’s great to have that north star of what we’re going towards,” he said.
“The Philadelphia Union’s fans include a lot of business owners and CFOs,” said Tom Shoemaker, RADC board chairman. “At some point people start to say ‘we ought to consider Chester for our next location for our business.’ We really think that’s what’s going to happen here.”