Willow Street Steam Generation Plant Will Start Generating Fun

We’ve mentioned the Willow Street Steam Generation Plant a few times over the years, noting its looming presence at the northeast corner of 9th & Willow, in the Callowhill neighborhood. As we’ve indicated previously, the building was constructed in 1927 and burned coal to generate steam (as the name suggests). Per Hidden City, Trigen operates a 33-mile-long network of underground pipes which runs throughout downtown Philadelphia, heating and cooling hundreds of buildings in the city. The Willow Street plant was once part of this network, but went out of service in the 1970s, sitting vacant ever since.

View from the east
Another angle

Given all the development activity in this area and the presence of the Rail Park just a couple blocks to the west, we’ve remarked that this property would be an excellent redevelopment candidate. It has faced a limiting factor in the pursuit of that end, and that’s the presence of so much asbestos. That asbestos has made demolition or adaptive reuse unfeasible, barring hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of remediation work. But here’s some good news- thanks to the combination of new ownership starting in 2016 and the conservatorship efforts of Scioli Turco, we are pleased to report that the building is now remediated at last, and redevelopment is finally on the table.

At first blush, one might think that demolition would be the move here. After all, the building only sits on roughly half of the 30K sqft parcel, and there are some adjunct parts of the building that wouldn’t be terribly useful in a traditional mixed-use plan. Smokestacks, we’re looking in your direction. With CMX-3 zoning, a developer could build a 125K sqft new building, or more with bonuses, with a bunch of units and retail downstairs. But you’d surely agree, it would be a shame to lose the unique building that’s currently standing here, and boy oh boy does this building have some terrific bones.

Fortunately, we’re here to tell you that the steam generation plant isn’t going anywhere- and the upcoming renovation and repurposing will result in a rather unique use, quite different from a standard mixed-use project. Forget apartments, the plans here call for an indoor amusement park which may give people of a certain age flashbacks to Six Flags Power Plant in Baltimore. Yes, the former Willow Street Steam Generation Plant will soon be the home of iPlay Philly, the second location for iPlay America, which currently operates out of a space in Central Jersey.

Kite Flyer ride in action
See a show in 4D
This definitely wasn't posed

iPlay Philly will be a slightly smaller version of iPlay America, an entertainment complex which basically tries to replicate the Jersey Shore boardwalk experience indoors. They have an arcade, laser tag, a 4D theater, rides, games of chance, and several restaurants. iPlay Philly will take a more vertical approach than its suburban counterpart, spreading out over 100K sqft across six floors of the existing building and including a three-story addition to the north. Really using the site to its fullest, this place will offer a drop tower ride in the three smokestacks, dropping guests from a terrifying height of 168 feet.

The one sticking point for this project is that it’s not permitted by right in the CMX-3 district, so we can see a world in which this cool concept doesn’t get the variance it requires. With parking being a concern, the developers have an agreement with Center City District, which owns an adjacent property, to build a four-story parking garage that would likely alleviate most of the parking issues for the site. Of course, if that doesn’t pass muster with the ZBA, we could instead see a mixed-use adaptive reuse here, or <gulp> the demolition of the existing building and its replacement with something far less exciting, architecturally. You’ll forgive us if we’re rooting for the laser tag here.

Edit: This is not true. But it is true that the building has been remediated. And that means that we could be seeing something happen here sooner than later. That something will surely be something other than an indoor amusement park, though.

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