Update: 5:35 p.m.
Congressman Bob Brady needed to vote soon, but he hung back in his Washington, D.C. office for a few minutes longer to talk on the phone because the subject is South Philly — specifically the hulking monster of a ship planted in the Delaware River across from IKEA and Longhorn Steakhouse.
“What the hell’s going on with that thing?” Brady asked.
It’s the perfect question: What the hell is going on with the SS United States?
If you don’t know the SS United States by name, you know it by sight. The ship is so tall it has its own skyline. The ship is so dilapidated it has its own overused, albeit cool, word to describe the situation. The ship is mothballing. Or the ship is mothballed.
Media have been all over the SS United States for years (us included). The Washington Post gave the ship #longform attention in 2014. The New York Times has written about it four times in the last three years. These articles and the dozens to hundreds of others generally bring up the ship’s plight and allude to some grand future, where the ship becomes an entertainment center, likely in New York, relieving Philly of its “giant ocean liner rusting in a harbor near a bunch of strip clubs” duties.
But will that ever happen? The SS United States was originally supposed to be in Philadelphia for 21 days, according to media reports from 1996. Days. We are now in the 21st year it has been docked on the Delaware, and there’s seemingly no end in sight. Probably because there is no end in sight, according to developers who can’t imagine any use that would bring a return on investment for something so large, so old and so expensive.
“I’m a progressive developer,” said Alon Barzilay, who converts old buildings into new uses, “but I like to say I’m not a pioneer.”
$15 million just to stay afloat
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.
Yes, it all sounds very cool — but not as cool as traveling from the United States to Europe in the sky. By 1969, nobody needed ships because of airplanes, and the SS United States went out of commission. Most everything worth saving from the ship was auctioned off by the 1980s. In the ‘90s, it stayed in Ukraine and Turkey for a while to have asbestos removed and by 1996, perhaps for the first time but certainly not the last, the SS United States was headed for the scrap heap.
South Jersey millionaire Edward Cantor swooped in to buy a controlling interest from a Turkish company. He died several years ago but in his life was known for his adventurous ways. He owned, for instance, a 192-foot yacht called “The Other Woman” stocked with art by Matisse and Picasso (“It’s treated like another woman — all the attention and the money”).
One source told Billy Penn Cantor essentially won the rights to purchase the SS United States in a card game. His idea was to take the ship back to Philadelphia. He expected the city to help with funding for a redevelopment project turning it into a cruise liner or floating hotel — sigh, yes, they were calling it a “floatel” — that could bring up to 1,500 jobs to the Navy Yard. The reception for the most part was positive.
“It was gorgeous,” said Brady, remembering those days. “It was shock and awe, and ‘let’s fix it.’ Everybody wanted to be helpful. But then the dollar figures came in.”
The actual cost of the liner wasn’t prohibitive. Cantor would’ve sold it to the right party for a few million. The expensive part was the redevelopment, estimated to cost anywhere from $200 to $500 million.
At least one leader saw the future: The Daily News quoted an unnamed city official after the ship’s arrival who feared the SS United States “could very easily be the largest abandoned vehicle in the city.”
Terry Gillen, who was appointed by then-Mayor Ed Rendell to help develop a new master plan for the Navy Yard, remembers it was quickly determined the SS United States could not be docked at the Navy Yard. And this was during a period in which all kinds of crazy ideas were being trotted out for the area, even building a race track.
Rendell’s director of communications Kevin Feeley told the Daily News in 1999, after the novelty of having a gigantic decaying ship in the Delaware had worn off, “There was never a feeling that this would be a feasible public investment.”
So the ship kept sitting there, costing its owner about $60,000 a month in docking fees and maintenance. That’s a tab of about $15 million since 1996.
Supposedly two parties were interested in buying and redeveloping the ship in 1998. Then in 1999 “several people and groups” wanted it. In 2000, there were two “very, very viable offers.” Again and again, nothing materialized.
It was finally sold in 2003 to Norwegian Cruise Lines. The company had plans to make a cruise ship out of the SS United States. A feasibility study by Norwegian Cruise Lines quickly determined doing so would be too expensive even if it were possible. The company unloaded its albatross in 2010 to the SS United States Conservancy, which received $5.8M in funding from philanthropist Gerry Lenfest.
Since then, it’s been up to the nonprofit to make the impossible and too expensive seem feasible.
‘I don’t see it being financially viable’
They are developers who have taken on some of the riskiest, oddest projects in Philadelphia. Bart Blatstein turned the area around the abandoned Schmidt’s Brewery into a reasonably successful retail/apartment complex, at least until he sold to Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Alon Barzilay has turned churches and mills into apartments and lofts. Eric Blumenfeld has converted the Divine Lorraine Hotel into apartments, and the building is nearly ready after a little more than a year.
They like history, and they know how to leave it intact while remaking it for the present. But when asked about the SS United States and whether it could ever be redeveloped their reactions were all pretty similar to Blumenfeld’s.
He laughed at the question for several seconds. Then, one word: “No.”
“I don’t see it being financially viable, unfortunately,” Blumenfeld said. “There’s great history to that ship.”
With any project, developers talk about the need for transforming an existing object or structure into something with higher and better use. The term essentially means finding a legal, physically possible way of turning an existing structure into something that not just endures, but is also profitable.
The bar for something better than a decaying, abandoned ship is not high. But exactly what the SS United States could become is debatable. Just like Norwegian Cruise Lines discovered, Crystal Cruises examined the possibility of returning the SS United States to the open seas and deemed it impossible last year. So cruise ship is out. The other options would be hotel (floatel!), apartments, entertainment, museum, retail, office or likely some type of mixture.
When Blumenfeld started on the Divine Lorraine, he said he cast aside much of his original ideas. This is common. Unexpected problems and opportunities happen with any project. But people redevelop old buildings all the time and have a template in mind.
There is no template with the SS United States. The number of times old ocean liners have been redeveloped can be counted on one hand, the most prominent example being the Queen Mary in Los Angeles. It made its last trip in 1967 and the process of repurposing it into a museum/hotel/restaurant space began immediately. When it opened in 1971, the ship was widely known, contained many of its original flourishes and had not decayed over the years.
Still, for decades, ownership of the Queen Mary was passed from company to company, each having little, if any, financial success. The latest owners, as of last year, planned to spend about $15 million more on the ship and $250 million to redevelop the parking-lot-laden area around it.
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,” Blatstein said.
Said 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.”
Thomas Basile, a spokesperson for the SS United States Conservancy, said in a statement the nonprofit continues to meet with developers from across the country. Though Crystal Cruise Lines canceled its plans last year to redevelop the ship after a feasibility study, the study revealed the SS United States to still be structurally sound and capable of being moved.
“This is perhaps the most unique development opportunity in the nation and it is certainly not without its challenges,” Basile said. “But she is our flagship and a symbol of what we can accomplish when we work together.”
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.
The closest the SS United States likely ever came to being saved was after Lenfest helped the Conservancy buy it in 2010. At the time, Foxwoods Casino was being planned for Philadelphia, on the Delaware River. Brady wanted to have a city-run casino. Within all these plans was the prospect of using the SS United States as part of the casino and a museum. Brady said renderings were made and conversations were had. But nothing ended up happening, despite pull from a US Congressman and one of Philadelphia’s most influential businessmen.
“If anybody could’ve done it,” Blumenfeld, “it would’ve been Lenfest.”
Scrap heap then saved, over and over
Some of Lenfest’s funding in 2010 went into sprucing up the SS United States. For a while, the ship shone brightly in South Philly.
Without him and his money, the SS United States has primarily been in the news for a series of “last calls” to save it from the scrap heap. These are warning cries to supporters of the ship that it won’t be around much longer, unless they contribute money to the Conservancy.
Each time the ship has been saved, the promise of redevelopment appears on the horizon. In December 2014, the Conservancy declared it had reached a “preliminary agreement” with an unnamed developer but noted “the project remains at an early and delicate phase.” In 2015, likely interested groups were RXR Realty and Youngwoo & Associates, who wanted to move it to New York City (RXR declined to comment and Youngwoo & Associates didn’t respond). The plan hasn’t materialized, and neither did the aforementioned deal with Crystal Cruises reached in early 2016. Crystal Cruises wanted to return the SS United States to the seas. Months later, last fall, the company cited regulatory and engineering obstacles. The idea was shelved and the sale nullified.
Basile said the ship has received donations to keep the ship around from people in every state and in several other countries. No taxpayer funds have been used for it.
The SS United States can remain in Philly so long as the Conservancy pays its expensive bills and the pier’s owners are fine with the tenant. Pier 82, home of the SS United States, is owned by the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority and operated by Horizon Stevedoring.
“As things stand now, PRPA has little say about the use of Pier 82’s north berth for the vessel,” said spokesperson Joe Menta. “Of course, we’d like to see that berth going back to active cargo-handling use. We also hope for a happy end to the saga of the SS United States at the same time.”
That is essentially the story of the SS United States: It’s here in Philly, and nobody wants to tell a historic ship to go sink, despite the difficulties of saving it. Mayor Jim Kenney, in a statement, said he “believes the ship should be put to some good use,” but the city has no concrete plans for what it could do with it. Brady said, “I can’t say, ‘no, get rid of it.’ I don’t want to be the person to say scrap it.”
The Congressman hears about the SS United States from his constituents from time to time. They used to enjoy seeing the giant ship as they traveled down Columbus Boulevard, especially after Lenfest had paid to light it up. That’s been changing the last few years.
“They’re starting to like it less,” Brady said, “because it’s decaying so bad.”