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Transformation of Philly Navy Base

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A transforming vision

Former Navy Base would become a modern urban center

By Henry J. Holcomb

Inquirer Staff Writer | Sep. 08, 2004

PhilaNavyYard.jpg

Philadelphia, at long last, has a plan to turn its old Navy Base, where 60,000 people worked at the peak of World War II, into a modern urban center.

City officials and their planning consultants envision a complete community with industrial, office, engineering, research and military enterprises, as well as places to live, dine, study and play.

The base employed 11,000 skilled civilian and military workers in 1991, when the Pentagon announced plans to close it. So the planners focused on uses that would employ people.

If the plan, to be presented at a ceremony on the base this morning, is fully developed over the next two or three decades, the 1,200-acre site could house $2 billion in private investment and up to 30,000 jobs, the planners say.

PhilaNavyYard002.jpg

SOURCES: Robert A.M. Stern architects; ESR; GDT Architect's rendering looking west from proposed marina on the Delaware River at a planned community with a variety of places to work and live.

Those new businesses would be aided by a Keystone Opportunity Zone, already approved, that waives several local and state property taxes until 2015. And the master plan is flexible - what is built is to be driven by what is in demand at the time.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform an amazing but underutilized site into an incredible new community. It has wonderful historic buildings . . . an amazing number of acres adjacent to the river," said Robert A.M. Stern, the New York architect and Yale University dean who heads the planning team.

The city and its planners tout the huge site's strategic location near the airport, seaport, highways, and three major railroads. The plan calls for a $260 million, one-mile extension of the Broad Street subway from its terminus at the sports complex to create a fast link to Center City.

Longer-term, the plan envisions tunneling under the Delaware River for a new rail link to South Jersey.

Until now, the city has focused on redeveloping the west end, site of the 195-year-old Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where the Kvaerner Philadelphia Shipyard now builds commercial cargo vessels. The master plan's 18-foot-long model, to be unveiled this morning, focuses on the Henry C. Mustin Field Naval Air Station, which closed 45 years ago, at the east end of the base.

"We are moving from our industrial heritage to a mixed use that includes research, high-tech businesses, as well as residential and recreational uses. It will add a whole new dimension to the city," said Peter Longstreth, president of Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., the city economic-development agency responsible for redevelopment of the base.

Recently renamed the Navy Yard, the base is almost as large as Center City, the area between the rivers and bounded by South and Spring Garden Streets.

The plan, which cost an estimated $2 million, was developed jointly by the PIDC and Liberty Property Trust, the Malvern-based real estate company. In a 2002 competition, Liberty, teamed with Synterra Partners Ltd., of Philadelphia, won the right to build a 60-acre office park near the main gate.

Liberty and the PIDC hired a team headed by Stern, an architect noted for skyscrapers, academic buildings, planned communities, and homes for the wealthy. Others include EDAW Inc., of San Francisco; Cathers & Associates, of Malvern; and Kelly/Maiello, Daroff Design, and Urban Engineers, all of Philadelphia.

"We started with a whole bunch of market analysis," said John Grady, the PIDC senior vice president in charge of the project. The planners then turned to engineering experts who examined availability of utilities as well as how much weight the land would support.

"Then we added the design professionals, giving them information on various constraints up front," Grady said.

The plan, Stern said, "compares with what has happened in Charlestown, Mass., where a Navy yard has been made into a vibrant center where people study, work and live," and the Mission Bay redevelopment in San Francisco.

The Philadelphia plan, presented in 144 large pages, divides the base into seven zones:

Historic core, with tree-lined streets and century-old buildings, some of which are already being converted into modern offices and others viewed as candidates for 500 to 1,000 loft apartments. This area includes, among other key sites, the birthplace of Marine Corps aviation. In 1911, First Lt. Alfred Austell Cunningham took off from the parade ground on Broad Street, in a rented airplane called Noisy Nan, and became the first Marine to fly.

Shipyard area, site of the Kvaerner shipyard and other manufacturing, repair and ship-recycling operations.

Liberty Property Trust's proposed Navy Yard Corporate Center, east of Broad Street just inside the main gate.

Research Park, site of the new 200-person laboratory and manufacturing center that Liberty built for AppTec Laboratory Services Inc. of St. Paul, Minn.

Norfolk Southern Corp. railroad yard, a high-tech facility where cargo can quickly be shifted between rail and other modes of transportation.

Marina District, site of a future residential and recreation complex.

An area now called "the east end," which is next to the Port of Philadelphia and could serve its long-term needs for distribution facilities.

Housing was not in the re-use plan the city submitted to the Navy in 1994, so the city must seek federal approval for the housing component.

The plan embraces the Navy's continuing presence; it still stores ships, builds submarine propellers, and engages in a variety of engineering and research work, employing 2,500 people.

The plan does not show the horse racing/casino complex proposed by Manuel N. Stamatakis and his partners, but PIDC officials said that facility could become one of the proposed uses of the east end area.

The marina and east end areas are below the 100-year floodplain. The planners envision using clean soil from deepening the Delaware River's ship channel by 5 feet, from 40 feet to 45, to both elevate the land and strengthen its load-bearing ability. The process could take a decade.

By then, noise-suppression technology is expected to be available to deal with low-flying jet airliners landing at Philadelphia International Airport, which now can drown out conversation in that area.

From The Philadelphia Inquirer

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