Southport: A Battle for the Future of Philadelphia’s Waterfront

originally written by Stephen Landis at

refineryOn August 3, 1684, as an influx of early business developers flocked to the new port city, Philadelphia founder William Penn issued an unusual edict. Waterfront development had begun to block public access to the Delaware River, an important resource for early colonists. “The water,” Penn decreed, “is no purchaser’s.” Owners of waterfront property would have to extend city streets to the river and keep them open to the public.1

Thus began Philadelphia’s perennial battle between industrial development and recreational use along its waterfront districts. Today the battle takes place around the Southport Marine Terminal, where Phil Rinaldi’s Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) seeks to develop a large open space along the Delaware River into a fossil fuel export hub.

The Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (PRPA), a state-controlled entity, unveiled the PES proposal, one of six competing proposals, at a public info session on March 9th, where community, environmental, and union leaders voiced serious concerns with the PES proposal.

Pointing to PES’s poor environmental record at the former Sunoco refinery in Southwest Philadelphia and the lack of new jobs created by the proposal, opponents called for the PES project to be permanently tabled. Other development proposals, such as one by Liberty Property Trust, would create more green manufacturing jobs and prevent the controversial expansion of fossil fuel industry along Philadelphia’s waterfront.2

The PRPA is poised to rule on a dilemma faced by the city time and again in its history with waterfront property. How do we encourage economic development without sacrificing the quality of life for Philadelphia residents? In this debate it may be worth heeding the lessons of the recent past.

The famous Wood Street steps, a granite passageway tucked away along the 300-block of north Front Street in Old City, is all that remains of Penn’s original design for public access to the Delaware River.3

Penn envisioned the original stairways as a way for all Philadelphians to maintain access to the river for economic and recreational purposes. A sometimes shrewd urban planner, Penn realized that the passageways opened by the steps would provide channels for fresh air from the river to sweep through the notoriously putrid streets of early Philadelphia.

But in the 1970s, the construction of the Delaware Expressway segment of I-95 forever divided Center City Philadelphia from its waterfront, once a centerpiece of the city’s bustling economic and residential life. Since then, millions of dollars worth of development at Penn’s Landing has done little to restore Philadelphia’s historic bustling waterfront district, which was once the cultural heart of the city before the industrial boom of the 19th century.4

The plight of Center City’s Delaware River waterfront should be seen as a lesson in urban development for Philadelphia’s other extensive waterfront districts. The Southport Marine Terminal is located directly adjacent to the Navy Yard, whose recent revitalization is a prime example of forward-thinking alternatives to the mistakes made in construction of the Delaware Expressway.

When the federal government decommissioned the historic League Island shipbuilding site in the 1990s, the move came to symbolize Philadelphia’s tragic decline from “workshop of the world” to a dystopic, jobless ruin.5 The Navy Yard was subsequently purchased by the city of Philadelphia and redesigned as a hip, modern campus for innovative business. Today, the Navy Yard’s website brands the area as a haven for “smart energy innovation and sustainability.”The repurposing of the Navy Yard inaugurated Philadelphia’s transition into a thriving, twenty-first century city.

Now, construction of a massive fossil fuel export facility along its sprawling eastern flank threatens to mar that reputation for environmentally savvy thinking. To do so would be to repeat a mistake made time and again by short-sighted developers, straying far afield from the enlightened vision of a “greene countrie towne” set out by William Penn and advocated by progressive urban planners today.

The PRPA’s March 9th info session was dominated by a growing coalition of environmental and faith-based groups, joined by unions and community organizers, who have dogged Rinaldi every step of the way, seeking to raise public awareness of the billionaire’s plans.

PES has faced intense criticism for its secretive dealings with regional businesses and city officials, laying out plans for a broad overhaul of Philadelphia’s industrial infrastructure. The plans would accommodate an extensive new vision for the city to become the “Houston of the East Coast”. Thus far, PES has failed to solicit public input on its massive project.7

The PES proposal for the Southport Marine Terminal would consist of a series of tanks and pumps designed to load and unload fuel vessels from a large dock which would be extended into the Delaware River.8 Much of the process would be automated, hence few new jobs would be created. The proposal does not seek to build on the Navy Yard’s commitment to sustainability or green building.forkedpath

Rinaldi’s opponents plan to continue to campaign for a sustainable alternative to the PES vision. On May 7th, in an event called the “Right to Breathe” mobilization, organizers plan to hold a rally at the old Sunoco refinery. By proving there is large public resistance to the project, organizers hope PES will be forced to commit to some degree of transparency moving forward.9


1 See Kyriakodis, Harry. Philadelphia’s Lost Waterfront. The History Press, Charleston: 2011.

2 Public documents and Southport Perminal updates are available at

4 For example, see

5 See for example,

7 NPR’s “StateImpact” has been following Energy Hub developments since 2014: