Master Plan For Chester Waterfront Revealed, Awaits Developer Partners
One of Pennsylvania's most economically disadvantaged cities has debuted a plan for what it hopes will be its best revenue engine in years.
Last week, the Riverfront Alliance of Delaware County revealed its Chester Master Waterfront Plan, a framework for a multiphase development of almost 100 acres along the Delaware River. The land already is home to Subaru Park, home of the Philadelphia Union Major League Soccer team, and is bounded by Highland Avenue to the south and Norris Street to the north. RADC enlisted architectural firm NBBJ to lead the plan's design.
The only part of the plan that has been budgeted for so far are improvements to Route 291, which provides the opposite boundary of the development district to the waterfront; Engle Street, which is a main access road from Chester to the stadium parking lots; and some public green space to entice more pedestrian activity.
“We feel the base work has to be laid down in terms of public infrastructure work to attract development,” RADC Executive Director Lisa Gaffney told Bisnow.
Keystone Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Union, has purchased a fairly large portion of the land included in the master plan, mostly using it for game day parking lots, over the past few years. Beyond the completed redevelopment of a former power plant into an office building and team headquarters called The Wharf, Keystone has no specific development plans for the waterfront. The team would like to see a youth sports facility included when plans become more concrete, Gaffney said.
When the Union's stadium was first built as PPL Park in 2008, it was meant to anchor a mixed-use development district, but plans were scuttled by the Great Recession. Local officials have sworn that not even the economic struggles brought on by the coronavirus pandemic will cause a repeat of that aborted plan.
The infrastructure improvements will be funded with credit from Pennsylvania's Waterfront Development Tax Credit program, purchased by private companies such as Bryn Mawr Trust. RADC will apply for more credits in the same program next year to fund improvements to Reaney Street, which will require another private entity to purchase them.
Though no developer has yet been selected for any portion of the waterfront, the master plan itself was sponsored by Keystone Sports, the charitable arm of M&T Bank and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, which holds sway in the project in more ways than one.
Decades of financial difficulty have kept Chester under financial management through the state's Act 47 program, wherein a private company — in this case, Philadelphia's Econsult Solutions — is tasked with turning a city's financial fortunes around. After 25 years under private management, the state appointed a receiver, working in the Department of Community and Economic Development, to manage city finances. That receiver, Michael Doweary, supports the waterfront plan, Gaffney said.
Though the master plan has the receiver's support, the city's finances mean that any development will have to be financed by the state, county or private sources. Among those potential sources is a PennDOT-funded Multimodal Transportation grant, for which Chester will likely apply in the next week, Gaffney said.
“We will be submitting for public funding in addition to tax credits in the form of grant applications, so we’re looking to get creative,” Gaffney said. “We’re in consultation with the receiver for the projects we’d like to do, and if you look at the receiver’s report, they agree that the waterfront is a key element of economic revival.”
Once the infrastructure improvements are complete, RADC envisions the second phase of development as including a multifamily project, a hotel, a marina and improvements to the Union's training facilities. The element on its wish list that could prove more important than anything for increasing pedestrian traffic is one that is almost entirely out of the city and RADC's hands: an improved and relocated stop on SEPTA's rail line.
Philadelphia sports blog Crossing Broad called out the current transit situation for attendees of Union games as subpar, saying that the gap in convenience between attending soccer games and major sporting events in the South Philly stadium complex is “wild.”
“We think [transit improvement] is a critical component, but that doesn’t mean it’ll immediately happen,” Gaffney said. “We think the current [Highland Avenue] station is not in good repair, and it would make sense to move it to Engle Street. But whatever investment SEPTA decides to make in the station would help entice developers to come invest.
“We’re not the final determinant on that kind of move.”