For some Philadelphia residents, Venice Island–a patch of land between the Manayunk Canal and the Schuylkill River—is a site for contentious debate. Since its official inception in 1889, Venice Island has challenged a community determined to reform it.
Residents have complained about major flooding issues, citing a devastating flood in 1999 that occurred on and around Venice Island, but also its zoning shift from an industrial to a residential site during the same year when the City Council approved condominium development, which allowed the building of two condo projects.
During Manayunk’s industrial boom in 1840, the area featured factories, mills and other labor-intensive businesses and was once considered one of the country’s largest textile producers.
Katelyn Brosius, a 22-year-old student who lives off Hermitage Street, said she doesn’t like the fact that Venice Island has become desolate because she said it makes the area appear unsightly.
“Can’t they do something about that?” Brosius asked. “I don’t have a problem with the Venice Loft condos, but everything else is an eyesore.”
Venice Loft Condominiums, which was developed by Dranoff Properties and is located between Leverington Avenue and Fountain Street on Venice Island, was the center of attention early this year because of the death of 27-year-old teacher Ellen Rae Greenberg, which puzzled medical examiners and investigators on the cause of death until it was ruled a suicide in early May. She was discovered fatally stabbed in the chest.
But the condominiums are also constantly subjected to heavy flooding, something the city has yet to manage.
Nicole Lick, president of Friends of the Manayunk Canal (MDC), a non-profit watershed organization, said that recent development on Venice Island has posed a problem to the area, and a major flood in September 2010 forced Venice Loft Condominiums to evacuate its tenants.
“Even though this flood was not the ‘big one,’ people needed to be rescued from the building,” Lick said. “Not only does that endanger the lives of the residents of the condo complex, but the rescue workers as well.”
Venice Island has flooded over five times in the last century, most notably in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd caused the Schuylkill River to rise to 14.1 feet.
The City of Philadelphia Commerce Department (PCD) issued a statement before last year’s flood took place, which, according to its predictions, caused the Schuylkill River to crest at 15.2 feet, urging Manayunk residents to take necessary precautions in regards to the safety of their businesses and residencies.
Despite calls from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to address flooding over a decade ago, which the federal government said “is a certainty,” Philadelphia has yet to alleviate the public’s concern over Venice Island.
Last year’s evacuated tenants were rescued on lifeboats that were managed by the Fire Department.
Other residential development projects have been approved by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission on Venice Island, including Venice One Condominiums—a 280 unit complex proposed to take the place of the vacant Carmella’s Restaurant between Leverington Avenue and Green Lane, in the middle of the floodplain, though the project has been on hold likely due to economic factors.
To Lick, little can be done to combat the natural events occurring on Schuylkill River’s floodplain because to her it is intended to be inundated with water during floods.
“What can and should be done is to develop the island intelligently with designs that account for and mitigate the impact the floods will have on the people and property who live here,” Lick said.
But Lick discouraged development, citing it as a direct source of property damage and potential loss of human life.
“Elevating the structures, providing for safe evacuation routes, creating a warning system and many other techniques can be used to reduce the potential for damage,” Lick said. “[They] should be implemented if it is not possible to avoid locating residential structures in this high hazard area.”
Last year’s flood carried many objects—including automobiles, dumpsters and tractor trailers–along the river route, causing dangerous situations for anyone trapped in the flood.
Brosius, who remembered the flood, prevented friends from moving into the Venice Loft condos, “I remember seeing all of the debris,” Brosius said. “A few of my friends wanted to move in to those condos, and I advised them not to.”
As for the abandoned buildings still deteriorating on Venice Island, Lick said that property owners are responsible for the upkeep of those buildings and that they didn’t always look so run-down.
“The future home of Venice One Condominiums was not always abandoned at the time of purchase but it has been left to deteriorate by the developers due to delayed construction,” Lick said. “What happens to these structures is the responsibility of the property owners.”