Navy Yard redevelopment: enough to lure residents into a sustainable community?

Home Front

by Alex Vuocolo

It’s happy hour on a Friday at Lo Spiedo, a Marc Vetri-owned Italian restaurant located beside the main gate of the Navy Yard. There are only a few patrons sitting at the bar. One pair sips their draft beers as they look over paperwork. Another is getting the check, ready to head home. 

The bartender, Anwar Morgan, says Fridays are one of the slowest days of the week. This is because employees from the Navy Yard make up the bulk of Lo Spiedo’s customers, and they tend to rush home for the weekend. Other Vetri joints are likely filling up around this time, but then much about the Navy Yard doesn’t work like the rest of the city. 

First and foremost, no one lives here. The 1,200-acre sustainable urban business campus is entirely commercial and industrial. Among its 145 business tenants are Urban Outfitters, Iroko Pharmaceuticals, Tasty Baking Company, GlaxoSmithKline and the Consortium for Building Energy Innovation, a federally funded research hub devoted to making buildings more sustainable. 

When the U.S. Navy transferred the property to the City of Philadelphia in March of 2000, the deed banned residential development, setting the course for the next 15 years of business-centric growth. 

Today, home is inevitably a car ride or shuttle bus away for the 11,000-plus employees that work at the Navy Yard. 

That could be about to change. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), a nonprofit entity that manages the Navy Yard for the city, is in talks with the Navy, which maintains a presence there, to end the ban. PIDC is also trying to bring amenities to the area that would help attract residents once the ban is lifted. That means more restaurants like Lo Spiedo, but also amenities like grocery stores and day care centers. 

“Residential is inevitable,” Morgan says, echoing a sentiment shared by many of the Navy Yard’s boosters, as he wipes down the top of the bar. 

Yet the transition won’t happen on its own. First, PIDC and the Navy need to iron out a new agreement. Then comes the much harder job of making the Navy Yard a place that people actually want to live. 

Turning the ship around

Before it was a modern business campus, known for green building methods and innovative office design, the Navy Yard spent over a century earning its namesake. 

The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, as it was originally called, churned out vast steel warships from 1876 to 1970, when it built the Blue Ridge, the last new ship to leave its port. After that, most of its work came from repairing old ships. Rumors of an impending shutdown circulated for years. Then, in 1996, after a determined, if futile, effort by then-Mayor Ed Rendell’s administration to delay it, the shutdown came. 

Terry Gillen, now an economic development consultant and recently a candidate in Democratic mayoral primary, was among the first officials at PIDC to begin working on setting a new course for the Navy Yard (a story she recounted in talk at TEDxPhiladelphia 2014). She and a small team developed an outline for what the Navy Yard should become. From the beginning, she says, their focus was on creating jobs. 

“Back then, one of the reasons that we decided not to do residential was that what the city really needed most was jobs,” Gillen says. “The city lost about 10,000 jobs when the Navy Yard closed.”

Other factors included some unfortunate geographic variables, such as the lack of transit access and the constant sound of airplanes taking off from the nearby Philadelphia International Airport. 

“We had a blank slate, and we had to consider any and all ideas,” Gillen says. “And we deliberately decided on creating a business park.”  

The thinking around residential began to shift about 10 years ago, according to Will Agate, senior vice president of Navy Yard management and development at PIDC. It was no longer considered unrelated to job growth, but key to making the Navy Yard more appealing to employers and employees alike.  

“I think as a society we have become much more holistic,” Agate says. “There are not these black and white lines between your work day and your private day.” There is a growing expectation among professionals, he adds, that they be able to work, play and live in the same area, especially for those concerned about sustainable living.

PIDC’s 2004 master plan proposed that a segment of the Navy Yard, dubbed the Marina District, be designated for residential and retail. The 2013 update of the plan also included residential, though in a different part called the Historic Core, which stretches from the main gate to the Delaware River and encompasses much of the Navy Yard’s historic architecture. 

So, why the delay?

“Most of the complexity really relates to the fact that the Navy is such a large organization. There are several branches of the Navy that actually function at the Navy Yard,” Agate says. “It’s a little like herding cats.” 

That’s not to say there is a lack of interest. The Navy has a stake in residential as well, according to Agate. “Their specific needs are very much aligned with ours in that they are also trying to attract employees to work at the Navy.”

PIDC’s goal is to work out a new deal by 2016 and start issuing requests for proposals from residential developers soon after.  

New workers, and new needs

Where do the workers themselves stand? At least some think it’s a great idea, assuming there are some changes first.

“I think it would be great,” says Dan Flynn, 26, an employee of GlaxoSmithKline. “The only thing is how removed [the Navy Yard] is from anything that’s not commercial or industrial.” There would need to be “more essentials,” he adds, like grocery stores and pharmacies.

Those types of amenities are exactly what PIDC is trying to bring to the Navy Yard now, before residential development occurs. 

"I think what we will start to turn the corner on is what I call the convenience amenities,” Agate says. These include grocery stores, barbershops, and shoe repair shops, which “appeal to both workers and residents.”

Already, Agate points out, some basic amenities exist, including a hotel, a paved riverside path, six public parks, and a network of pedestrian and bike-friendly streets.

One of the biggest opportunities for making the Navy Yard more amenable to residential development is the possible extension of the Broad Street Line from AT&T Station, formerly the Pattison Avenue station. 

“The fact of the matter is that every single thing that we’ve talked about really relates to the whole reason why the Broad Street Line extension makes so much sense,” Agate says. “It’s a way of connecting the Navy Yard as a hub to Center City, of bringing residents both down to the Navy Yard, where they work, and up to Center City and the other hubs of the Philadelphia market.”

Currently, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and SEPTA are conducting a study to detail how the extension could be done. “This is the more detailed study that needs to be done to clear the way for funding opportunities,” Agate says, which would include a mix of local and state dollars, as well as federal transportation grants. The study will be complete by next year, he adds. From there, the timeline depends on the political will of local lawmakers.

“If everyone gets behind this project on a reasonably expedited basis, you’re talking about a project that’s five, seven years out,” he adds. 

Much has changed at the Navy Yard since it first shut down and set out on a course to become its own version of an employment hub, where green building technology, fashion and pharmaceuticals have replaced shipmaking. 

“We were losing jobs and people at such a rate,” Gillen says, about the early 1990s.“You could not get young people to work in the city. They wanted to work out in Montgomery County, out in the suburbs.”

“It was a very different time," she says, “so it’s important to rethink all of these plans from time to time.”