There was still something unusual about the plan to erect a single row of upscale townhouses on the strip of land between Fishtown’s Penn Treaty Park and the Rivers Casino parking lot. Unlike most developments in Philadelphia, the homes did not face a public street and instead treated the sloping lawn and waterfront view of the park as their own preserve. Perhaps this is why the developers of the project could boast in 2019 that they received advance offers of $ 1.5 million for several houses.
Today, the only occupants of this Delaware waterfront development are squatters. The 18 houses are half-built, their green insulation material flapping in the wind. Construction came to a halt even before the pandemic began, and building permits have now expired. The two houses closest to the Delaware Waterfront Trail were blackened by a fire that lit up the Fishtown skyline just before dawn on October 8.
This fire was the last straw for the Philadelphia Licensing and Inspection Department. On Tuesday, the agency selected a contractor to demolish the 18 homes, which could be the first case of the luxury burn removal in the city. Karen Guss, spokesperson for the department, said the company will start dismantling the structures in the coming days. The bill will go to developer Gotham Bedrock of New York City, though the company has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is battling its lender, Sharestates, in court.
Guss said the city declared the site unsafe immediately after the fire and asked Sharestates, a Great Neck, NY-based real estate finance company, to submit a plan to secure the homes. When Sharestates failed to act, L&I decided the city’s only option was to raze the luxury development itself. Most likely, the upper floors will be removed and the concrete foundation left in place.
How a waterfront project managed to fail in Philadelphia’s sizzling real estate market remains a mystery to the city’s development community and the residents of Fishtown. “It should have been a slam dunk,” observed Greg Hill, a developer who is building 500 homes further north on the river on Cumberland Street. “They did all the hard work to pour the foundation and get the project out of the ground. Why stop there?
The project had already received all of the necessary city approvals for construction when Gotham purchased the 1.5-acre site from Philadelphia developer Shovel Ready Projects in 2017 for $ 7 million. The deal even included an architectural design from Abitaire Design Studio. While Gotham suffered a brief delay after the US Army Corps of Engineers found it had not been granted a bank stabilization permit, the case was quickly resolved, according to Kevin Maley, chief of the application of the body to the area.
Gotham, which prides itself on its success with several Brooklyn projects, is getting off to a slow start nonetheless. The foundations for the houses, which had to be reinforced with steel due to the swampy terrain, were not completed until 2019. Gotham fired its first contractor, and then at least two others, according to a source involved in the project. Work ceased completely in early 2020 and the company declared bankruptcy this summer. “It was a self-destruct issue,” the source said. Stephen Mattei of Adjudicator complained that Gotham still owes him $ 250,000 for the design work.
While the city’s decision to demolish the homes will eliminate the scourge that has plagued the popular waterfront park, it leaves open the question of what will happen next. Several Philadelphia developers, including Hill, have expressed interest in acquiring the narrow site. Gotham is believed to also have a separate plot just south of the houses, bordering the casino parking lot.
But Gotham’s unfinished development shows just how problematic the site is for private homes. While many similar parks around the city are lined with row houses, these houses are usually demarcated from the public realm by a city street. The houses of Gotham seem to be in Penn Treaty Park and their presence blurs the lines between public and private space.
“These houses just have no place there,” said David Perri, who recently retired as commissioner of L&I. He suggested that it was a mistake to zone the site for housing.
The arrangement also appears to violate the spirit of the Central Delaware master plan, which called for major improvements to Penn Treaty Park. Last year, the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. completed the first major upgrade, an extension of its recreational trail through the park. A long, curved seating area overlooking the water and offering spectacular views of the Ben Franklin Bridge, has become a popular gathering place for the community. The bench is a few yards from the houses of Gotham.
Thanks to the work of local volunteers, the park has become a lush oasis. Jonathan Doran, an architect who helps manage the group of friends of the park, said the members recently secured a state grant of $ 65,000 to purchase new trees and shrubs. Since working with the group of friends, Doran has become increasingly concerned about the effects of climate change on the park. He noted that the Delaware River shoreline originally ended at Beach Street, which means almost all of Penn Treaty Park is built on landfill. “I really wonder who decides what can be built on the waterfront,” he said.
Once the city completes the demolition of Gotham’s homes, it seems likely that Gotham’s bankruptcy proceedings will prevent anything new from being built on the site for several years. By then, the risks of building on this fragile and particular waterfront location should become much clearer.