Will a new riverfront concert venue close the gap between Fishtown and the Delaware - or widen it? | Inga Saffron

This pencil sketch was submitted by Live Nation to the FIshtown Neighborhood Association at its June 5 meeting to discuss a new concert venue at the Peco generating station.

Before the construction of I-95 in the 1960s, the pocket of Fishtown that old-timers call Riverside spilled all the way down the Delaware, where it overlooked a keyboard of industrial piers. The highway mowed down hundreds of homes, effectively forcing the neighborhood to retreat upland. As the distance between Fishtown and the river of its birth widened, the pull of the water grew weak.

But since Philadelphia started to reengage the waterfront a decade ago, Riverside has renewed its bonds with the Delaware. New rowhouses and apartments are pushing habitation in the direction of the river again. Penn Treaty Park has come back to life with dog walkers and picnicking families. As PennDOT winds up a long construction project that has realigned I-95, people are even talking about reopening several blocked pedestrian crossings on Delaware Avenue. The river feels close again.

Live Nation, the entertainment behemoth, senses the changes, too. It now wants to shift its waterfront operations upriver, from Festival Pier to a four-acre site at Beach and Palmer Streets, next to the former Peco generating station. The move would replace Festival Pier’s makeshift concert venue — essentially, a party tent in a parking lot — with a deluxe, 6,000-seat open-air arena. But there are also concerns that the proposal is being railroaded through the approval process, with little thought about its impact on the reviving Riverside enclave or Penn Treaty Park.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
As part of the reconstruction of I-95, PennDot has added new green space along Delaware Avenue, reducing the divide between Fishtown and the river. The former Peco station could become a wedding hall. 

Residents learned about Live Nation’s plans for the first time earlier this month when the site’s owner, Joe Volpe, asked the Fishtown Neighborhood Association to bless a City Council bill to rezone the Peco station to allow entertainment and alcohol sales. But despite the rushed request, Volpe, who founded the Cescaphe event group, brought no design, no architect, and no traffic study to that June 5 meeting.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Palmer Street in Fishtown offers direct views of the Delaware River, but you can’t cross there because the road is a highway with a Jersey barrier in the center median.

“He basically showed us a pencil sketch,” the group’s president, Ian Wilson, told me. His goal seemed to be to pummel the Fishtown neighbors into submission.

The neighborhood association rightly pushed back. Two more meetings are now scheduled to discuss the project, on July 17 and Aug. 14. Fishtown residents will be asked to vote on the proposal at the August meeting, presumably so the rezoning bill is ready to go when City Council reconvenes in September.

Given that we are in peak vacation mode, that’s an awfully tight time frame. “It feels like they’re trying to get a decision before people really understand what’s going on,” says Jonathan Doran, an architect who can see both the Peco site and the Delaware River from his East Allen Street home.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
The banks of the Delaware have grown extremely lush around the former Peco generating station.
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This overhead image from Google shows the lineup of Penn Treaty Park, the former Peco generating station, and the proposed site for the Live Nation concert arena.

As a rule, entertainment venues and residential neighborhoods go together like oil and water. Philadelphia crowds aren’t particularly known for their good manners, either.

Doran is worried about nuisance behavior from drunken concert-goers stumbling through his neighborhood, which is wedged between I-95 and the Peco site. Even if Live Nation strictly controls alcohol sales inside the arena, what happens when the partying shifts to Penn Treaty Park or onto Fishtown’s residential streets? Matt Ruben, who chairs the Central Delaware Advocacy Group and serves on the board of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., says Doran’s concerns are valid: “I’ve seen the police reports on all manner of nuisance behavior” after the Festival Pier concerts.

Still, there are reasons to be excited about a new, more permanent concert destination on the Delaware. The venue would allow 4,000 people to sit under a canopy, according to the waterfront corporation’s Joseph Forkin. Volpe has told Forkin that he wants to use the income from the Live Nation deal to renovate the Peco generating station, designed by John T. Windrim in the early 20th century. Although the mammoth neoclassical building, which resembles a great train station, was listed on the city’s historic register in 2016, it requires millions in repairs and environmental cleanup. Volpe envisions the building as a wedding venue, with a boutique hotel overlooking the river and a cafe on the ground floor near Penn Treaty Park, Forkin says. (Volpe did not respond to my requests to discuss the project.)

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The 2011 master plan for the Central Delaware suggested that a concert venue could be built at the former Peco generating plant on Beach Street, next to Penn Treaty Park.

The idea of erecting a concert area on the open site next to the plant goes back to the 2011 master plan for the Central Delaware. At the time, planners were looking for a logical place on the waterfront to jump-start residential development. They focused on Festival Pier because it is one of the few spots that is fully integrated into Center City’s grid.

To free up the pier, the master plan suggested moving the concerts to the Peco site. Like Festival Pier, it is a large open area with relatively good transit access. Besides the Route 25 and 43 buses, the Route 15 trolley terminates nearby on Delaware Avenue, across from SugarHouse Casino. It’s a 10-minute walk to the Market-Frankford El’s Girard stop. For those who drive, Volpe is working out a deal to lease parking spaces in the SugarHouse garage. He has also offered to extend the Delaware bike trail through the site. Forkin says.

Camera icon Inga Saffron / Staff
PennDot’s reconstruction of the highway has created new green spaces.

But some of these transit options work better on paper than in real life. Although waterfront officials have been promising transit upgrades on Delaware Avenue for years, the Route 25 bus runs too infrequently to be useful. The riverfront trolley, promised in the master plan, is nothing more than a gleam in the city’s eye.

The city and the waterfront corporation need to take a more active role in civilizing Delaware Avenue. Despite all the new housing springing up near Fishtown’s riverfront, the road remains more of a highway than a neighborhood boulevard. Other than Columbia Avenue, there are virtually no streets where it is safe to cross. A Jersey barrier runs down the center median, cutting off most of the neighborhood’s historic streets. The long distances between crossing points makes it all the more likely people will wander through Riverside’s streets on their way to the new concert venue.

Camera icon Inga Saffron / Staff
The pocket of Fishtown closest to the Delaware River was cut off from the water by I-95, leaving occasional houses stranded on the river side of Delaware Avenue.

The waterfront corporation plans to improve the Columbia Avenue underpass with an artful lighting scheme, similar to the ones at Race and Spring Garden Streets. Crosswalks at Palmer and Marlborough would do more to reconnect Fishtown with the river. It’s hard to believe that there are 19 homes rising at Marlborough Street, on the south side of Penn Treaty Park, but there is no way to cross Delaware Avenue there.

Can the Fishtown Neighborhood Association really sort through all these issues on its own by Aug. 14?

The group is likely to come under intense pressure to approve Live Nation’s proposal — and not just from Volpe. The waterfront corporation, which selected a developer for Festival Pier in 2015, is eager for construction to start, Forkin says. The agency has told Live Nation that this is the last summer that it will be allowed to hold concerts on the pier. A concert venue could be a great waterfront amenity for Fishtown. But not if it interferes with the neighborhood’s efforts to reclaim its place on the river.

Camera icon City of Philadelphia
The pocket of Fishtown closest to the Delaware River was cut off from the water by I-95. This map shows the street layout in 1962, before I-95 was built.