New chapter possible for Delaware Generating Station

The hulking power plant just north of Penn Treaty Park on Fishtown’s waterfront sits silent, its stacks rusting and concrete chipped. Exelon announced plans to sell the underused Delaware Generating Station last fall, its utility as even a backup power station now faded.

In recent years the buidling’s potential has captured the imagination of neighbors and waterfront planners alike. The 2012 Master Plan for the Central Delaware calls the 1917 generating station a “significant landmark” that should be renovated and repurposed. At last it looks like adaptation is on the horizon.

Last week the Inquirer’s Joe DiStefano reported that developer Bart Blatstein has partnered with Joseph Volpe of Cescaphe Event Group to purchase the huge riverfront property from Exelon. Their redevelopment concept would take the building from producing electricity to producing events: A twinset of hotels, each with their own ballrooms in the awe-inspiring old turbine halls. It is also possible their program could include waterfront apartments and a marina.

The Delaware Generating Station’s location, immediately north of Penn Treaty Park along 1000 feet of riverfront property, gives it the potential to anchor ongoing revitalization work along this stretch of the Central Delaware. Plus, it is one of few remaining historic industrial buildings along the waterfront. The building is the stuff of dreams, and its reuse is a preservation challenge worth accepting.

Currently the property has no level of historic designation, though neighbors have been working on a nomination to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Despite its lack of preservation protections and accompanying incentives, the Delaware Generating Station deserves to be sensitively adapted, and architect John Windrim’s refined industrial classicism should be treated with respect. (Click through the slideshow below for a look inside, compiled by our Flickr contributor Jeremy Marshall in recent years.) 

Though we have much more to learn about Blatstein and Volpe’s plans, I’m leery of any monolithic reuse of this property – from the hotel/events venue proposed to dreams of a powerhouse museum space. I doubt a single focus could sustain a property of this scale. Plus, it would be a shame if the property’s primary use were blockbuster weddings in dueling ballrooms on weekends. That kind of draw – inviting guests to brifly parachute in and out – won’t do enough to enliven this key riverfront spot. Instead, Blatstein and Volpe should consider a range of more granular uses to augment their reuse plans.

The 2012 Master Plan called for the old generating station to be “redeveloped into a vibrant mix of cultural, museum, archival, office, studio, gallery, retail, and entertainment uses.” That variety would help activate this proud landmark and add important neighborhood-scale amenities. I’m especially hopeful that the building’s reuse will offer stronger connections to Penn Treaty Park next door and foster a beautiful public environment that enhances the waterfront trail. Done right, it could be an absolute boon for the neighborhood and riverfront’s ongoing revival.

We know Bart Blatstein has come a long way from his days developing waterfront strip malls in South Philly. From the remains of Schmidt’s Brewery, Blatstein created the Piazza, a fairly adventurous mixed-use neighborhood infill project designed by the firm Erdy McHenry, and more recently proposed a wild entertainment and gaming complex for the former Inquirer Building. Blatstein’s recent moves to repurchase the former Foxwoods property on Columbus Boulevard and now the Delaware Generating Station suggest he’s ready to chart a new development course on the Delaware waterfront. Let’s just hope his vision matches his ambition.

Rendering of new performance venue north of renovated Delaware Generating Station from Master Plan for the Central Delaware, 2012.
Rendering of new performance venue north of renovated Delaware Generating Station from Master Plan for the Central Delaware, 2012.

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