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Empty Lot at 18th and Callowhill

empty lot from nw.PNG
1.2 acre lot at 18th and Callowhill Streets in 2019.
Franklin Town Boulevard on the left runs diagonally southeast between The Watermark and One Franklin Town buildings. The rectangular patch of snow in the middle of this photo covers the abandoned straight segment of 18th Street. The Callowhill Cut is at bottom left.

There are just a few land parcels in the Baldwin Park neighborhood that have potential as building lots. Developers of the combined lots along the north side of the western half of the 1800 block of Callowhill have presented proposals to the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA). The air space over the Callowhill Cut at 21st and Hamilton has had development proposals at LSNA as well but construction is still pending. The parking lots north of the Free Library and on the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) campus on 17th Street are wasted as surface parking lots, but at least are providing parking convenience. The bare southeast corner of 18th and Spring Garden, now part of CCP but formerly a PECO substation, is not now particularly well used. The lot pictured above at 18th and Callowhill Streets is a grassy but fenced off 1.2 acre lot with access on 19th Street, Callowhill Street, and 18th Street. What is its story?

Bush Hill was subdivided in the early 1800s and heavy industry sprang up along the rail line running through the neighborhoods just north of the original Philadelphia city limits (locomotives were banned in the city proper). Residences for workers filled in between the foundries, and the first map below shows residences, and one Methodist Episcopal Church, filling the entire block now occupied by the empty lot under discussion. The sequence of maps below shows the changes from 1895 through 1985.

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Detail from 1895 Bromley map of Philadelphia. 19th Street runs vertically on the left and 18th is on the right. Callowhill runs horizontally on the bottom. Tatlow Street runs through the future Baldwin Park.
The current empty lot was residential in 1895. Pennsylvania Avenue was not yet submerged into the "Callowhill Cut," so the train tracks ran directly past the front doors on the row homes facing it. The empty lot of today is demarcated on the map within the yellow lines. We will call the rectangle above the now extinct Rhoads Street the "north parcel" and the rectangle between Rhoads Street and Callowhill the "south parcel."
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Northwest corner of 18th and Callowhill in 1894.
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Detail from 1901 Bromley map. The Callowhill Cut has been made, necessitating the removal of the houses fronting it. The Cut on this block is 25 feet deep with two foot wide blocks of stone forming the wall. Tatlow has become Noble Street and Rhoads has become a continuation of Shamokin Street.
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Detail from 1910 Bromley map. Industry has encroached onto the block. Manufacturers along the Callowhill Cut could use massive hoists to lower finished products from the factory onto the rail lines.
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Detail from 1922 Bromley map. The Emory Methodist Episcopal Church became an iron works in 1897. Baldwin Locomotive Works has taken over three-quarters of the future Baldwin Park.
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Detail from 1942 land use map. There are no more residences except 1847 Callowhill (now the Rose Tattoo).
In 1923 the Electric Power Equipment Corporation moved to the two story building marked "Electric Equipment Co." from 13th and Wood Streets. It paid $70,000 for the 72 x 268 foot plant.
The stippled lots represent commercial businesses and the lower right stippled lot with the "S" represents a gasoline service station. The "V" stands for vacant land. The Baldwin Locomotive Works completed its move to Eddystone in 1926.
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Aerial photo from the east in 1939. The Electric Equipment Company building can be seen in the lower right. Notice that Shamokin Street is a through street on the 1800 block here. The Family Court building, under construction here, was built between 1938 and 1941.
Photo credit and high-resolution here
empty lot 18 and callowhill 1939 dallin lcp.png
Closer view of right lower corner of the above photo.
The White Flash on the white building on the left refers to the White Flash Oil Service at the Atlantic Refining Company gas station. The ELPECO sign on the right is an acronym for the Electric Power Equipment Company.
The cantilevered structure over the railroad tracks in the lower right is a road that was built to preserve the road on the south side of what was in 1898 the Pickering Spring factory. It is now the fenced off area on the south side of Baldwin Park.
19th Street is at the top and Callowhill Street is on the left.
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Portion of 1950 Sanborn insurance map (volume 4 plate 306) showing the structures on the now empty lot
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Northwest corner of 18th and Callowhill in 1955 shows service station.

The Electric Equipment Company made transformers at this site for over thirty years. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were used as a dielectric (an efficient insulator) in the transformers. Railroad cars would pull up along the plant via the Callowhill Cut. The oily PCB, specifically Aroclor 1260, would be pumped from the train cars into four 12,000 gallon underground storage tanks at the plant, at which time there would be overflow and spillage of PCBs at the site of unloading and storage. In 1978 the manufacture of PCBs was banned after they were linked to human disease, including liver disease and cancer.


In 1980 PCB contamination was detected in the building and soil. Building remediation and removal of 68 drums of PCB fluids were accomplished prior to demolition of the building down to its concrete pad. In 1983 a second cleanup involved removal of the concrete floor, the four underground PCB storage tanks, and contaminated soil (total contaminated material removal of 2,269 tons). In 1984 a cleanup of remaining hotspots of PCB contamination was performed with post-excavation samples showing PCB levels less than 50 ppm (parts per million), the then safe standard. 230 tons of contaminated soil had been removed. In 1988 further testing showed surface soil PCB levels of up to 292 ppm.

As a refresher of high school chemistry and physics, transformers are used on utility poles to step down voltages to a safe household level. They are also used industrially. The coils of wire inside the transformer are insulated from each other by being bathed in the oily PCB, with some transformers holding hundreds of gallons of PCB. It was the existence of transformers for AC (alternating current) but  not DC (direct current) in the 1880's that led to our reliance on AC instead of DC current in our electrical grid. 

Polychlorinated biphenyls consist of two linked phenyl rings with chlorines substituted for hydrogens at several of the numbered carbons. The number of chlorine substituents, and their placement, determine the chemistry of the particular PCB, as well as the standards for safe levels.

PCBs have been responsible for other contaminated sites, most notoriously the General Electric plants in upstate New York and their dumping of PCBs in the Hudson River from 1947 to 1977. This created a 200-mile long Superfund site, with GE dredging the river from 2009 to 2015 at a cost so far of $1.5 billion.

Transformer on utility pole.
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Chemical structure of the PCB family. The (Cl)n notation represents a variable number of chlorine for hydrogen substitutions.

The empty lot still shows evidence of the prior more extensive excavation of the north parcel in that the grade level changes by two feet at the border of north and south. In 1997 the empty lot was purchased for $700,000 by University City Housing, a property management company based at 3418 Sansom Street, and whose founder, Michael Karp, was recently in the news. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection records, as of 1998 the site still had contamination, with one particular hot spot having PCB levels of 22,000 ppm at a depth of 18 feet. See the map of the remediation plan below.

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1998 map of remediation plan. The action is in the upper left, especially the heavily hashed "hot spot" with PCB levels of 22,000 ppm. Note also in the upper left the thick horizontal black line noting an area of "Retaining Wall Repair." There had been a sunken area on the site and a hole in this wall after one of the remediations done in 1983. This repair today is seen in the image below.
empty lot wall repair.jpeg
The repair to the south retaining wall just east of the 19th Street bridge is seen as the lighter colored, less thick, area. The repair is made of of preformed faux-stone block panels with a repetitive pattern, in contrast to the individual blocks that were laid 100 years earlier. The height of this repair area is 18 feet, the same as the depth of excavation in this zone in the 1983 remediation.

After remediation of the site, including removal of 2,100 tons of soil from the hot spot, a PA DEP report in 1999 stated that the levels met the Statewide Health Standards, less than 50 ppm, for a non-residential commercial site. In addition, two 3,000 gallon and one 1,000 gallon underground gasoline storage tanks were dug up and removed from the southeast corner of the lot where the service station had been.

If there is an empty lot in the area, everyone seems to have a vision for that blank canvas, some expressed over a beer and some more formally.  Here is a 171-page plan for a deluxe hostel drawn up for a graduating thesis for a Masters of Architecture by a Roger Williams University student.

So why no development of this choice parcel if the soil has been remediated? One possible answer is that it is more profitable as a residential development and there might still be the need for more remediation. Another reason can be gleaned from Philadelphia property tax records. From 1997 to 2019 the market value of the land has increased sevenfold. The parcel has great potential. The Callowhill Cut, also known as the future Rail Park, runs directly alongside this lot. The ever-growing Community College of Philadelphia, with 27,000 students enrolled, is directly across the street to the east. It's four blocks to the Comcast Center. Most impressively, it's across the Cut from Baldwin Park! We will have to wait and see what the future holds for this lot. 

authored by Joe Walsh, March 2019
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