Developers seek community support for Delaware power station overhaul

The developers who are hoping to redevelop the massive power station north of Penn Treaty Park in Fishtown have started making the rounds to drum up support from various community groups.

Last week, the Central Delaware Advocacy Group (CDAG) met with Joe Volpe, of Cescaphe Event Group, who is planning to convert the former PECO station into a mixed-use event space in partnership with developer Bart Blatstein. The latest renderings of the project draw out the concept: two event spaces for private weddings and corporate gatherings with two restaurants open to the public and blocks of guest rooms on upper floors reserved for events. The developers seem to have dropped earlier plans for traditional hotel uses at the site.

Volpe and Blatstein announced they had an agreement of sale on the 11-acre property in January. In August, the pair bought the site for $3 million.

The latest renderings also show surface parking for more than 400 cars on what is currently a dirt lot just north of the empty power station. Surface parking is a use that’s discouraged in the Central Delaware Master Plan, adopted by the City Planning Commission a few years ago and codified in the Central Delaware Zoning Overlay, which includes the PECO site.

“[Surface parking] is not something that we would promote,” said Matt Ruben, the chairman of CDAG. “But it’s proposed as an accessory use to the restoration and preservation of a massive structure that is one of the most important structures in Philadelphia, so we have to look at the parking in a larger context because it’s so significant.”

In November, Councilman Mark Squilla introduced a bill that would have exempted the property from another zoning overlay, the North Delaware Avenue Neighborhood Commercial Area, but that bill didn’t move forward. If Squilla still wants to change the zoning for the property, he’ll have to reintroduce a bill next year.

Ruben said that CDAG generally thinks the proposed use will be good for the site. The group is glad that the proposal would allow some public access to the site, namely through the restaurants, and Ruben said they would encourage the developers to make at least one of the restaurants casual and affordable to encourage trail users to patronize it. But he said the group is concerned about the potential legislative rezoning of the site.

“Any bill that would legalize this proposed use would have to punch a hole in the Central Delaware Overlay, and CDAG is of course bound to speak out against such a move as a matter of policy and principle,” Ruben said. “That’s not a statement against this project. It’s about process. It’s about how the Councilman views and approaches the overlay moving forward …”

Joe Volpe, who presented the project to CDAG last week, was unavailable for an interview on Tuesday. Bart Blatstein said that the developers still plan to present the proposal to other community groups, including Fishtown Neighbors Association. He didn’t have an estimate on the cost for the project but said it would be in the tens of millions of dollars. He’s hopeful that the work could start next year, pending zoning changes.

“I don’t know that the Master Plan really is designed for a property like that … because you’ve got an existing condition there and an existing building,” Blatstein said. “… I believe that the plan is very consistent with the property and the location.”

Kim Broadbent, a preservation planner at the Historical Commission, said that some neighbors had submitted a nomination to designate the power station historic in August. The Commission determined that the nomination was “incomplete and incorrect” and sent the it back pointing out where it needed to be amended. The neighbors haven’t yet resubmitted the nomination, Broadbent said.

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