SS United States and incrementalism

A year ago I wrote about the news that the SS United States was apparently bound for New York. The historic but decomposing South Philadelphia landmark seemed about to have a future for the first time in decades as a Manhattan-anchored attraction. Unfortunately, what was announced with fanfare last year wasn’t anything more than news of a Crystal Cruises having taken an option on the ship in advance of a feasibility study. Evidently that feasibility study produced the same conclusions that have doomed every previous plan for the ship: expenses too massive to be financed privately, and (rightly) no appetite for public financing:

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The dying ship remains in the Delaware River. After reading Mark Dent’s retrospective on the ship’s redevelopment failures, I think it’s time for the SS United States Conservancy to scrap her. She has a romantic history:


In a very 1950s way, far from Philadelphia, the SS United States used to be amazing. The luxury passenger liner set a trans-Atlantic speed record that still stands, and it completed the feat in frigid, choppy waters. Among its passengers were Marilyn Monroe and JFK (maybe at the same time?), Judy Garland, Salvador Dalí, Grace Kelly and a young Bill Clinton, who took the SS United States when he crossed the Atlantic for his Rhodes Scholarship in 1968.

Even in this rock bottom situation there must be some way to rehabilitate the ship. But the scale of the thing, both in terms of size and dollars, is staggering compared to Philadelphia’s largest works:

SS United States developers would be gambling on 48 years of rot in an object whose heyday is remembered by few. The size of the ship is huge, 650,000 square feet. In comparison, the Piazza has 100,000 square feet of commercial space and an 80,000 square-foot courtyard. According to real estate research firm JLL, the combined square footage of all new office space brought on line into Philadelphia’s central business district in 2016 — the areas around Market Street, University City and the Navy Yard — was 891,000.

“I don’t have a clue what the best use is for it,” [developer Bart] Blatstein said.

Said [Eric] Blumenfeld: “There has to be a financial path that at the end of the day you end up with something that the cost of acquisition, keeping it on the water and the cost of putting into it something that makes sense all comes together.” Blumenfeld said, “And I don’t think that that exists.”

If developers were interested in the project, they likely couldn’t just grab a few investors and cobble together $500 million or even $200 million. Developers have enough trouble getting together $50 million, as Blumenfeld first did with the $44 million Divine Lorraine. Barzilay said projects of the magnitude of the SS United States often require partnering with banks, a sector usually unwilling to take risky gambles. Or government. Publicly-funded Lincoln Financial Field, for instance, cost $512 million.

What I don’t understand is why the ship couldn’t be rehabilitated in stages? It’s too daunting to redevelop at once, fine. Why not start with the first quarter of the ship? Anchor it permanently somewhere in the Delaware. The Port Authority (or whomever has the power) grants a permanent tax-free birth for the ship to eliminate the monthly fees. Construct high rise mixed-use towers around it to generate density along Columbus Boulevard. The deck and everything above gets a facelift and restaurants, bars, park space, etc. Then sometime later you go below deck to continue the process. I’d be curious to learn what the problems with this would be.

Or scrap her.

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