Philadelphia’s population isn’t growing, but its land mass is. Now 47 acres of riverfront property that didn’t exist when Billy Penn drifted up the Delaware River has become a hot commodity — and a source of controversy.
One party, the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, wants the parcel to expand the city’s shipping industry.
Another — a group of investors led by Delaware River Port Authority Chairman Manny Stamatakis, who last week was joined by Sixers and Flyers owner Ed Snider and New Jersey Nets owner Lewis Katz — is eyeing the land to build a "racino" — part horse track, part casino. Who ends up getting the property, which consists mostly of fill sucked from the bottom of the Delaware River, could depend on lawyers’ and state legislators’ interpretations of a 220-year-old state law.
On March 6, state Rep. Bill Keller introduced House Bill 696. Cosponsored by 52 legislators, the bill stipulates that the state hand over 47 acres south of the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal to the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, the independent state agency responsible for the marketing and promotion of port facilities.
The authority intends to combine that land with 66 acres it received through the Ikea deal in December and expand the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal to create what Keller called, "the premier terminal on the East Coast."
"We have to go there," Keller said. "We’re a port. We have to be where the river is. No one says a racetrack has to be where the river is."
But the state Department of General Services has stepped in and raised the issue of whether the land is the state’s to give away.
Three years ago, when the U.S. Navy gave the former Navy Yard to the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., making it the Philadelphia Naval Business Center, there were questions over whether or not the deal included the disputed territory.
"It was a very complicated legal issue that wasn’t resolved at that time," said John Grady, senior vice president of the PIDC, "and I think the issue is the same today."
The PIDC is not opposed to Keller’s bill, Grady said, but it supports the Department of General Services’ inquiry to find who really owns the property.
The group of racetrack investors, formally known as the Philadelphia Trotters and Pacers Inc., is applying for the one remaining harness racing license available from the state racing commission. Before the company could apply, it had to show the racing commissioners it had a place to build the track. Three other groups are applying for the license as well.
In February, the PIDC and Philadelphia Trotters and Pacers agreed on a tentative lease for 90 acres at the far east end of the naval business center, which Grady said includes a piece of the 47-acre parcel in Keller’s bill.
Stamatakis also plans to seek a state gaming license if Pennsylvania legalizes slot machines at racetracks. Gov. Rendell supports the legalization of slot machines as a means of generating revenue for the state.
The 47-acre property is formed of dredged material dumped from various construction projects dating back to the 1940s.
In the 1780s, Pennsylvania adopted the doctrine of riparian rights, which meant all of the state’s navigable waterways belonged to the state. The Delaware River is among the rivers covered by this law, therefore, the portions of the river from the western banks to the center of the shipping canal are state property.
Keller and William B. McLaughlin 3d, director of government and public affairs for the port authority, contend that makes any land that has sprung from the riverbed state property as well.
The PIDC has what is known as a quit claim deed with the Navy for the 47 acres. That means if the Navy ever assumed ownership of the land, it would have to turn it over to the PIDC.
The Department of General Services inquiry is expected to resolve all these issues.
It was just a few months ago that the port authority last took a stand against a proposal to use industrial riverfront property for commercial development.
In the fall, Councilman Frank DiCicco introduced a bill to rezone 45 acres belonging to CSX at Columbus Boulevard and Snyder Avenue from industrial to commercial. The change was to allow a developer to construct an Ikea home-furnishings store and shopping center.
Negotiations lasted months and Ikea threatened to build in South Jersey because of the delays. The port and the city finally reached a deal in December that gave the port authority 66 acres of waterfront property near the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in exchange for relinquishing its claim to Columbus and Snyder.
Port officials want to continue expanding south, and the only space left is the 47 acres now in dispute.
McLaughlin and Keller said the property south of the Walt Whitman Bridge is important because they predict cargo ships will soon become too large to pass underneath the span.
"We have to plan for this eventuality if we are going to remain a vital and meaningful seaport," McLaughlin said.
In less than two years, the port authority will make a pitch to the state to fund the expansion of the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal using the land from the Ikea deal and — McLaughlin hopes — these 47 acres.
"We believe once the 66 acres and that additional 47 acres are all under PRPA control, we will have a much more powerful argument we can make to the commonwealth," he said.
Keller plans to keep up the legislative pressure.
"I’m not going to just let the future of the commercial port be given away when I believe that is the best use for it," he said.
The PIDC views a racetrack and casino as an opportunity to create a substantial number of jobs and generate millions in tax revenue, Grady said. He believes the PIDC and port authority will be able to strike a deal acceptable to both sides.