Power Play

An abandoned coal-fired generating plant in Chester, Pa., is converted into a state-of-the-art office and data center.
August 11, 2010

From its opening in 1918 to well into the 1980s, the 400,000-sf Chester Waterside Station churned out electric power for industries and homes in and around Chester, Pa.

By the turn of the millennium, though, the coal-fired turbines inside the massive structure had been still for 20 years. In the surrounding neighborhood, one in four families lived below the poverty line, and the city's murder rate was twice the national average, according to the FBI. Despite the inherent beauty of its site along the Delaware River, it was hard to imagine any future for the once elegant City Beautiful structure.

But no such lack of vision afflicted Michael O'Neill, CEO of Preferred Real Estate Investment Inc., Conshohocken, Pa., who happened to drive by the site one day and saw opportunity where others saw only defeat. "Every study concluded that there was no possible economic reuse for it," O'Neill said. "But it was so monumental and so beautiful on its riverfront setting that I felt it would be a crime to have it destroyed."

In late 2000, O'Neill purchased the building and 90 acres of riverfront land for $1, renamed it "The Wharf at Rivertown," and hired Blackney Hayes Architects, Philadelphia, to renovate the shell for office use.

Fortunately, the building was in remarkable condition, according to Jody Arena, project manager for A&E Construction of Upper Darby, Pa. "There was some asbestos and lead paint that had to be removed, but apart from that there was just the standard power washing," Arena said. "We leveled the floor in areas and removed the turbines. We also refurbished a lot of the 100-year-old brass fixtures."

The property was located within a Keystone Opportunity Zone designated by the state's Department of Environmental Protection. Within such zones, state and local taxes are waived for 15 years, thus vastly improving the project's financial feasibility.

By 2001, O'Neill had found his anchor tenant, Synygy, the country's largest provider of web-based software for managing employee performance, which agreed to move 300 employees from its base in Conshohocken. To fit out its new headquarters space, Synygy brought in an architectural team from Hillier, Inc., of Princeton, N.J.

The task before Hillier senior associate Sonja Bijelic was hardly trivial—to create a high-tech 21st-century office environment within a structure that was more 19th-century than 20th. Federal tax credits were being used in the project, so Bijelic couldn't touch the building's envelope. The solution: build structures within the massive space using transparent and translucent materials that would blend into the background.

Rather than fill the main Turbine Hall—an area the size of a football field—with cubicles, Bijelic designed two stand-alone structures with enclosed spaces for offices and computer servers. These "architectural insertions" used glass and semitransparent polycarbonate sheeting, along with ordinary drywall in places for a solid background. These would be topped by wide-open reception areas that together could accommodate as many as 800 for company events.

Heating and cooling these open areas was not easy, because it was impossible to provide mechanical service from above the so-called architectural insertions. "The HVAC for the mezzanine space took our team two months to design," Bijelic said. "We decided to cool only the first eight to 10 feet above the mezzanine, and opted for a 12-inch raised floor with pressurized air vents. For cooling, this is the best possible solution, less so for heating."

Bilejic admits that the acoustics were not optimal. "At first, there was a seven-second echo inside the turbine hall," said Bilejic. "We used acoustic materials on the walls and opted for carpet tiles that were large in scale—100-by-100 cm—because of the enormity of the space."

For the contractor, the enormous space posed other difficulties. "Dealing with the 85-foot-high ceiling and hanging lighting was a challenge, but the building helped us out with that problem," Arena said. "There is an existing overhead crane system that slid on rails, and we erected scaffolding on the crane, using it to hang the lighting. The crane is not intended to be used again, so we worked from one end of the building to the other, parking it when we were done."

Late in the project, the contractor had to struggle to get materials inside the building. "After the owner put in the new window systems, we found we could not get large materials in," Arena said. "For the Synygy buildout, we needed to hoist everything through a 42-inch-wide door in a stair tower 20 feet in the air."

"Not only is the elegant space preserved, but the quality of the new design elements is very high," said judge Walker Johnson, FAIA, principal with Johnson Lasky Architects, Chicago.

In the end, O'Neill's vision paid off. Besides Synygy, five other tenants, including Wells Fargo Financial Acceptance, have leased space in the building.