Bridesburg Waterfront: Ready for Change

Star Staff Writer
By Brian Rademaekers

Right now, it is a little hard to imagine the Bridesburg waterfront at the end of Orthodox Street as a lush oasis for weary migratory birds and frazzled city dwellers seeking respite.

Driving east from Richmond Street, Bridesburg’s tight-knit, row home fabric quickly fades into a “no-mans land” that includes a fenced-in field of overgrown brush, a repair depot for banged up Yellowbird Buses, and a gargantuan trash heap used by the city.

Once you get past all of that, Orthodox Street dead-ends into a muddy lot of gravel, the Delaware River barely visible through a chain link fence.

This grim scene, however, is one of the few along the city’s Delaware River waterfront where real change is just around the corner.

The site - 67 acres of neglected, weed-choked land that stretches from Richmond Street straight out to the waterfront -  is best known locally as the Philly Coke site.

Its moniker is a reference not to bubbly, sugary beverages, but the massive coal byproduct processing plant that operated there from 1927 until 1982.

The complex was demolished in the mid-1980s, and the land has sat vacant since.
But recently, the Westrum Development Corporation has been moving forward with plans that will see the space transformed not only into a new community, but also a waterfront nature preserve and park.

Westrum’s project will contain about 900 residences, ranging from apartments and condominiums to town homes. The river’s edge, though, is to be set aside as a combined park and refuge for migratory birds that use the waterway as a flight path.

Late last month, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council received a $74,900 grant to begin work on environmental remediation of river’s banks. That could be a daunting task as much of the waterfront along the property is either sealed in concrete or steeply eroded.

Despite those conditions and a level of soil contamination from the decades of industry, PEC has high hopes for reclaiming the shoreline.

The money, which was awarded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Delaware Estuary Watershed grants program, will be used for early design purposes.

In all, the regional non-profit will tackle 15 acres along the river. At the core of the project are 2,000 feet of what is known as “inter-tidal shoreline,” or flat marsh areas that are temporarily exposed by falling tides. Such areas are not common along the Delaware, especially in industrial areas like Philadelphia, where much of the shoreline has been filled to accommodate piers and docks.

And while freshwater tidal marshes are hard to find, they are also essential to a wide variety of migratory birds and fish, such as shad and Atlantic sturgeon, which leave the sea to reproduce in the Delaware’s waters.

Patrick Starr, vice president of PEC, described the Delaware’s tidal marshes as one of the “most endangered” habitats in the state during a June exploration of the site, and said their preservation is important.

“Freshwater tidal marshes along the Delaware River’s urban areas have been filled in, or piers have been constructed to accommodate large industrial, commercial and residential land use complexes,” Starr said in a Dec. 20 news release. “This ecological restoration project not only improves wildlife habitat, it also provides amenities for the residents of Bridesburg, and contributes to the overall health and vitality of the Delaware Estuary.”

The riverfront nature preserve will eventually be linked to a larger project that will see Delaware Avenue extended as a scenic boulevard starting at Pulaski Park.

That project is being funded by a $30-million federal transportation grant, and is part of a larger project being coordinated by the Delaware River City Corporation.

The non-profit DRCC was formed to oversee the creation of an eight-mile “green way” along the river that reconnects the Northeast’s neighborhoods to river for recreation.

At the Philly Coke site, DRCC, Westrum, and PEC have all collaborated to come up with the park and natural area. Mariann Dempsey, secretary to the board of DRCC, said her group’s plans include a bike path that cuts between the Westrum homes and the river. “An alternate foot trail will complement the bike path and lead down to the river for people who want to take a closer look,” explained Dempsey, who said the design plans for the park are still in early stages.

Paul Lonie, project manager for Westrum development, said he believes allowing public access to the river will increase the value not only of all 900 units, but also the rest of Bridesburg. He expects the first phase of development and the riverfront trail to be built by the spring of 2009. “Everyone should benefit from this,” said Lonie. “Adding access to the river is something that adds value to this whole community.”

He said plans also include a parking lot near the park to allow access for seniors. “It’s like Kelly Drive. People don’t necessarily have a frontage on the water, but they can go there and easily use the paths and enjoy the river,” Lonie said, referring to the eastern bank of the Schuylkill River. “That feature makes the whole area around it a better place for everyone who lives nearby.” ïï

Reporter Brian Rademaekers can be reached at 215-354-3039 or [email protected]


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