Southwest: Community Surrounding Former Oil Refinery Site Take Action and Voice Concerns About Redevelopment Plans

As the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery transforms into a 1,300-acre warehousing and life sciences hub termed the Bellwether District, Southwest Philadelphia residents are pushing the developer to create a legal agreement to address their needs. 

The past two years have seen little direct dialogue beyond virtual community meetings, but Hilco Redevelopment Partners announced on Nov. 15 that formal negotiations will begin in January. Mia Fioravanti, HRP vice president of corporate affairs for the Bellwether District, said the first order of business will be to elect a third-party facilitator and the goal is to sign a Community Benefits Agreement by early 2024. 

“Now’s our chance to maybe get something back as they’re re-envisioning the site,” said Jessica Frye, president of the Girard Estate Neighbors Association. The association is one of nearly 20 neighborhood groups that established the United South / Southwest Coalition and worked to survey residents regarding their concerns and hopes. 

Frye’s Girard Estate neighbors want green space added to the former refinery site and a plan for transportation links between the site and the neighborhood. They’d also like money to upgrade their library and make it more accessible for elderly residents. 

Environmental advocates demand the decommissioning of the oil tank farm located across the river from the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery land at an Oct. 27 protest.

Russell Zerbo of the Clean Air Council, which has offered advice to coalition members, explained that such a large and diverse group of residents must balance competing economic and environmental priorities. 

“One of the things that they’ve asked, or that they could ask Hilco for, is, you know, we want greening projects in our community. We want you to build a park. We want you to plant trees and do all these other things, and then those things, you know, would be environmentally positive but they could cause gentrification,” Zerbo said. 

Frye said that concerns regarding gentrification were not prominent among her own neighborhood’s survey results but that the coalition’s overall survey results did contain frequent references to the issue. 

Rabbi Julie Greenberg, climate justice director for the POWER interfaith advocacy group, has been supporting residents’ organizing efforts. Greenberg explained that a Community Benefits Agreement could address gentrification concerns through investment projects that make it easier for residents to stay in their homes. For example, she said the agreement could include funds for weatherizing homes to lower energy bills. 

Activists at an Oct. 27 protest at the oil tank farm located across the river from the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery land demanded that Hilco do more to clear the site of fossil fuels.

While the United South / Southwest Coalition has been formally invited to participate in Community Benefits Agreement negotiations, former coalition member Philly Thrive has chosen to take its advocacy in a different direction. On Oct. 27, the group led a sit-in calling for the decommissioning of the oil tank farm located across the river from the former refinery site. Seven activists were arrested after hopping the fence into a restricted area. 

Alexa Ross, a Philly Thrive organizer who was among those arrested, said, “It’s been way too long that Hilco has not made any progress that we want to see on really repairing the harm of 154 years of oil refining.” A massive fire shut down the refinery in 2019. 

Ross explained that advocating for an effective Community Benefits Agreement remains a priority for Philly Thrive. She’d like to see two percent of the project’s $1.8 billion development budget go toward the agreement — that would equal $36 million. 

Zerbo confirmed that number would be in line with the standard set by other Community Benefits Agreements. 

Frye noted that Ross and her fellow activists played a crucial role in organizing the coalition and getting it ready to work on a Community Benefits Agreement. Frye said, “We wouldn’t be where we are today without Philly Thrive.”

Text, images, video & audio by: Elizabeth DeOrnellas

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