The one off-the-radar Philly site Amazon should consider

As the city puts together a pitch to entice Amazon to locate its second headquarters — and up to 50,000 jobs — to Philadelphia, one massive potential site doesn’t appear to be getting much respect.

Once home to the world’s largest privately owned port, the former Reading Rail Yard and the former Cramp shipyard sprawl across more than 260 acres along the Delaware River. Across I-95 from the city’s Port Richmond neighborhood, these vast, scrubby parcels extend south to Fishtown and are largely open and unoccupied.

“It’s a clean slate,” said Gregory Iannarelli, senior director of business development for the Port of Philadelphia. “And it’s large enough so that it could serve as both HQ2 and warehousing for distribution and movement of cargo. That’s a double benefit.”

The properties have unparalleled access to I-95, and it’s a 10-minute drive to Center City and a straight shot down the interstate to Philadelphia International Airport, said at-large Councilman Allan Domb, who is also a major city property owner. “There’s the waterfront for shipping. You have your own port.”

The rail yard comes with three jetties on a recently dredged waterway and is still served by Conrail, its current landlord.

“You could easily imagine putting a large corporate player there,” said Adam Glaser, a Philadelphia architect and urban designer, whose clients have included Penn State, Pfizer, and Amgen. “It’s a fascinating site. That’s one of the most interesting things about this city. There are so many large parcels of land that lay fallow, and most people don’t know they’re there.”

The Navy Yard and another property near 30th Street Station dubbed the Schuylkill Yards are considered to be the most likely parcels that Philadelphia will pitch to Amazon for its $5 billion campus. But more than a dozen locations reportedly are under consideration, according to Lauren Cox, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Commerce Department. She would not identify the properties.

“Nothing is finalized or off the table,” said Cox, “until we submit the proposal.”

A history of industrial might

Camera icon David Swanson / Staff Photographer
Conrail’s Jocelyn Gabrynowicz Hill walks the Port Richmond rail yard and its Graffiti Pier.

The largely forgotten Port Richmond rail yard is now best known for its Graffiti Pier, a hipster mecca often called the most Instagrammed monument in the city. Officially known as Pier 18, it’s 500 feet of riotous color, a three-story structure housing a psychedelic tunnel of arches that draws videographers and curious day-trippers from all over the world.

Graffiti Pier is one of the few remaining artifacts of what had been the engine of Philadelphia’s 19th-century industrial might.

Hundreds of men once labored on the wharves of the Port Richmond yard, which Conrail’s chief legal officer, Jonathan Broder, said remained the largest industrial property in Philadelphia. In the late 1800s, the yard was the terminus for coal from financier Stephen Girard’s Schuylkill County mines.

By 1893, the railroad monopolized the production and transportation of anthracite coal. There were 85 miles of track in the yard. It could handle up to three million tons of anthracite a year. The railroad itself employed 100,000 people, owned 63 coal mines, and was transporting 22 million passengers a year, Broder said.

Interest in the property — which has spectacular views of the city skyline — has waxed and waned since 1976, when the bankrupt Reading Railroad ceded the yard to Conrail. A total of 155 acres along the riverfront could be developed: 95 acres of the rail yard and 60 acres of the abutting former shipyard, which is owned by the James J. Anderson Construction Co.

“There’s space enough there for an entire neighborhood,” said Dan Martino, a Port Richmond civic leader and activist, whose family settled there in 1898 to work on the docks. “So your guess is as good as mine why nothing has happened yet.”

Camera icon Library Company of Philadelphia
A view of the Port Richmond rail yard in 1925. 

Anderson Construction leases a portion of the rail yard as a staging ground for its $350 million project rebuilding a 1.5-mile swath of I-95. Near Allegheny Avenue, Conrail runs a “pocket yard” that serves the Philadelphia Belt Line along the waterfront and carries freight to the Tioga Marine Terminal. The remaining property is strewn with weeds, saplings, and random piles of illegally dumped debris. A small copse of trees screens the piers from the highway.

A few development proposals have washed up, only to be scuttled. Four years ago, Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn optioned the old shipyard, calling it a “delicious piece of real estate,” with plans for a huge gaming complex. Earlier, Fastship Inc. optioned the rail yard with a scheme to transport freight in three days from Philadelphia to France — but went bankrupt in 2012.

“There are no specific plans for it right now,” Conrail’s Broder said. The railroad is not actively marketing the land to anyone. “Our focus has been on the other parts of our operation because rail traffic has increased significantly. But if we could find the right user, ideally a rail customer, this would be a great opportunity.”

Echoes of Seattle

The rail yard’s status as a brownfield “could be a big blemish” said Domb, who considers the Navy Yard the city’s leading contender. But the last environmental investigation, conducted in 2007, found that industrial contamination of the soil and groundwater was “relatively mild,” Broder said. “We don’t think there’s anything insurmountable there.”

Glaser, the architect, said that when Amazon chose the South Lake Union neighborhood in Seattle for HQ1, “it was just as off the radar back then as some of the Philadelphia sites are right now.”

Scoring the behemoth’s corporate campus would be transformational, said Glaser, also chief design officer of Benjamin’s Desk, a hothouse for start-ups. But if Amazon passes over Philadelphia, pitching the town’s more obscure properties, including the Port Richmond rail yard, will have been a valuable exercise.

“It almost feels like the scene in Cinderella. She leaves the slipper behind, and everyone wants to fit it,” Glaser said. “Win or lose, why don’t we keep this dialogue going? Have everyone keep thinking about their cities and where things could go. It’s made people realize this is such an extraordinary city, and there are all these fantastic places.”

Camera icon David Swanson / Staff Photographer
A view of the northern end of the former Reading rail yard in Port Richmond shows tracks and rail cars, as well as the location’s proximity to I-95 and the Delaware River.
A view of the Port Richmond rail yard in 1927.