Henon holds outreach meeting for Bridesburg’s controversial Coke lot

A view of the now-vacant former Philadelphia Coke Co. lot, along he 4500 block of Richmond St.

The first meeting of a citizens’ “working group” to develop a plan for the former factory site was called by some attendees “a mad house” that only confused matters.

City Councilman Bobby Henon (D-6th dist.) held the first meeting of a working group to develop a plan for the former Philadelphia Coke Company factory site last Wednesday evening.

The 70-acre site in Bridesburg has been vacant since the 1980s.

The land stretches from the 4500 block of Richmond Street to the Delaware River, between Buckius and Orthodox streets.

Councilman Henon recently introduced a City Council bill to return the site to mixed industrial zoning for a new industrial or business tenant, which has displeased neighbors who are hopeful for a greener use for the empty waterfront land.

Henon advertised the working group meeting as a chance to give neighbors a voice in the process.

City officials from the City Planning Commission, the Parks Department and the Delaware River City Corporation (DRCC) were in attendance as resources to answer neighbors’ questions.

But some neighbors said they did not feel like they were heard at the meeting.

“It was an exercise in futility … a dysfunctional mess,” said Daniel Adair, a resident of Garden Street, which is next to the former Coke property.

Adair complained that the officials and representatives didn’t take questions, and no clear agenda was presented for the meeting, which “brought more confusion to the situation.”

On the Bridesburg Facebook page, some members described the meeting as a “mad house.”

Others said it was a good forum to hash out ideas and get people talking.

Adair and other people in attendance said that neighbors were divided up into groups, given pieces of paper with a map of the site on it and invited to write or draw their ideas of how to best utilize the land.

DRCC executive director Thomas Branigan, who in part supervises the Greenway Trail Project along the Delaware riverfront, said that the only questions neighbors asked him were about when Delaware Avenue will be extended through the Coke property. That is up to the city, he said.

“When the city takes the road to the north end of the property, to Buckius Street, the Greenway trail would be part of that project,” Branigan said.

Councilman Henon’s office did not respond to calls for comment about the meeting.

Henon introduced Zoning Bill 121035 to the City Council in December, which would rezone the 70-acre vacant Coke property, which stretches from Richmond and Garden streets, between Buckius and Orthodox streets, to the Delaware River, for industrial use.

Bridesburg residents began to bristle at the plan quickly. On the “Bridesburg” Facebook page, numerous neighbors said that they saw green or park space as a more valuable use for the property.

However, the field is a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection-designated post-industrial “brownfield.” The soil is still contaminated with pollutants from the former iron-ore mixing Coke factory that make it currently unsuitable for residential use.

Adair said that Henon’s staff has told him that Bill 121035 is on hold in City Council while they address the community’s opposition to the plan.

In 2007, Westrum Development Corp. had proposed building more than 900 homes in the area, and successfully lobbied the City Council to rezone the longtime industrial site for residential use. That plan was canceled in 2008 due to the housing market collapse, Westrum officials said.

That project would have involved “capping the soil” to prevent any human contact with contaminated dirt.

Adair, who has photographed the Coke property and believes it should be made available to residents as waterfront and green space, shared with Star letters he sent to Councilman Henon inquiring if the Coke property was targeted for rezoning as a convenient location for Kuusakoski Recycling, on Orthodox Street.

Councilman Henon’s office has not yet responded to the suggestion offered in Adair’s letters.

Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215–354–3124 or at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.