BRIDGEPORT —A riverfront property with a sadly catastrophic history is one step closer to getting a new lease on life.

At Tuesday’s virtual Borough Council meeting Tony Maras, vice president and general counsel with Philadelphia-based PRDC Properties, presented the company’s plans for developing the former Continental Business Center, in a bid for Zoning Hearing Board approval.

“This is an engineered plan that we feel is not only the right development for this site but is the right development for this borough,” Maras said.

PRDC’s vision for the 30-acre property includes 250 unit apartment building on 55 East Front Street; about 320 townhomes also on 55 E. Front Street/19 Depot Street (the lots are contiguous); 7,000 square feet of commercial space with 12 apartments above it on 5 W. Second Street and 18 townhomes on 75 E. Fourth Street.

The property that is long overdue for some gracious attention was first beset by calamity in the fall of 1999, when many of the businesses in the Continental Business Center had suffered water damage from Hurricane Floyd.

In 2001 disaster struck again when a massive fire destroyed many of the businesses, including the famous Sweetzel’s Cookies.

In 2016 Borough Council had approved a land development proposal by O’Neill Properties Group (OPG) for more than 300 town homes on the waterfront, which ultimately fell through.

“In 2018, a new developer, Linden Lane Capital, gained equitable ownership of the property; however, they never really got past solving the issues surrounding building a residential development on a parcel prone to flooding, which involves bringing a significant amount of fill onto the site to raise it above the floodplain level, and gaining the necessary clearances from regulatory bodies such as the DEP. Their agreement of sale fell through as well,” noted Borough Manager Keith Truman.

“In late 2019, PRDC Properties contacted the borough and notified us that they now had the property under agreement of sale. In the months between then and now, PRDC has shown more thought, foresight, and commitment to the Bridgeport Community than any developer had over the last nineteen years. PRDC revised the old OPG designs and delivered a far more creative and attractive conceptual plan that seeks to integrate the development into the borough rather than isolate the development along the river. Furthermore, they have spent what I would estimate to be around $2 million on site work, including demolition of all remaining dilapidated structures on the riverfront parcel, fencing the property off in order to mitigate vandalism and trespassing, and beginning the fill operation needed to bring the site out of the floodplain. All of this was done without having received any approvals from the borough, which I took as not only a great leap of faith but a major gesture of good will. Even if for some odd reason, PRDC does not end up developing this project, the borough will be left with a parcel that has been cleared of the junk and debris that OPG allowed to accumulate and is ready to develop. That being said, I have every expectation that PRDC is the firm that will see this project through to completion.”

Tuesday marked PRDC’s second appearance before council.

“They had been in front of council back in January, giving a baseline presentation of what their plan was,” noted Truman. “Everything back then was conceptual.”

For now, PRDC is moving forward with the name O’Neill had in mind for the project, Bridgeview, as it’s worked to accomplish several points of zoning relief.

 “In addition to obtaining land development approval, OPG had also received certain pieces of zoning relief that they needed to build their original plan. Even though OPG is out of the picture, the land development approval and the zoning relief OPG obtained ‘runs with the land’, meaning that a new developer could come in, effectively build precisely what OPG got approvals for, and Borough Council would have little choice but to accept,” Truman explained.  

“By the way, this is exactly what Linden Lane had planned on doing. However, as PRDC had completely revised the old OPG plans, not only do they have to appear in front of council to obtain a new land development approval, but they also need a slightly different variety of zoning relief. Again, PRDC could have bypassed having to go through the added burden of obtaining a completely new land development approval and just built the previously approved plan that OPG had obtained approval for in 2016, but they wanted to deliver a new and exciting plan that they believe the entire community would be proud of.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, PRDC Properties outlined the zoning relief they were requesting. Council voted unanimously to send a letter to the Bridgeport Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) recommending support of PRDC’s requested zoning relief.  After hearing the PRDC presentation the following night, Truman reported that the Zoning Hearing Board voted unanimously to grant all requested relief to PRDC Properties.

Among the zoning ordinances requested and obtained are side yard setback to reduce 18 units from the required 10 feet to up to five feet; a variance to permit each lot to exceed the 90 percent impervious coverage as long as the site as a whole complies with this requirement; a variance to permit parking in the street right-of-way and a variance to allow a reduction in the minimum living space requirements from 1,000 square feet per residential unit to a minimum of 400 square feet per residential unit, with an average of 600 sq. feet across all unit types. 

“Council and zoning have done everything necessary to protect the borough, but also are an absolute pleasure to work with in terms of ideas and problem solving,” Maras said. “We accomplished a lot since late January when we first met with them. We started designing buildings, we fenced the site, we secured it, cleaned it up and got rid of all the trash. From our standpoint as a company, it’s a once in a lifetime chance to do a project that is transformative to an area. You have two rail lines nearby, you have a bus station nearby, bike trails, Conshohocken Brewing, you’re close to King of Prussia, close to Conshohocken. We’re going to deliver a highly amenitized community with river views. There’s so many great things about this and we believe it will be a catalyst for a lot of other great things in Bridgeport.”