1,458-unit, four-tower residential and retail complex proposed for former World Trade Center site

Developer Waterfront Renaissance Associates plans to build a 1,458-unit, four-tower residential and retail complex at the corner of Columbus Boulevard and Spring Garden Street – the spot where WRA had once planned to construct World Trade Square, a mixed-use development that would have included the Philadelphia World Trade Center.

The tallest two of the four towers of Renaissance Plaza would rise 426 feet, the other two 227 feet. The shorter towers would be more than double the 100-foot height limit established in the Central Delaware Waterfront Master Plan, the city’s long-range plan for the redevelopment of the Delaware River waterfront, between Oregon and Allegheny Avenues. 

But the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, which must approve plans of development for projects within the Central Delaware,  has the power to grant exceptions to the height limits. In an information-only session before the commission Tuesday, project attorney Hercules Grigos, of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel said that aside from the height, this project conforms closely to the master plan. In fact, he said, it was designed with the goals of the plan in mind.

The master plan calls for ground-floor retail, and the proposal for the 5.29 acres at 400 North Columbus Boulevard includes more than 90,000 square feet of it, Grigos said. The master plan calls for public open space, and this development would have green areas that all Philadelphians – complex residents or not – can use. The project would be built to the highest LEED standard attainable, and include a green roof with swimming pools.

“The owner and the architect (Bill Alesker of Alesker & Dundon) got together and sought a design that would be a signature project for the waterfront. We think the project will be a catalyst for future development along Columbus Boulevard and help connect the adjacent neighborhood with the waterfront,” Grigos said.

But Tom Corcoran, president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation – the quasi-city agency which oversaw the development of the Central Delaware Master Plan – said while some elements of the proposal sound very good, no development of this height and scale could meet the goals of the master plan.

“There is virtually no compatibility, or any areas of congruence, between this project as proposed and the recommendations of the Master Plan for the Central Delaware, which the commission adopted in February of this year,” Corcoran said.

Corcoran said the master plan specifically calls for low- and mid-rise buildings so that development spreads outward across the whole waterfront, rather than occurring in tall, isolated buildings.

He also said that economic studies that went into the formulation of the master plan showed the waterfront could absorb about 250 new units per year, and that this one development would take six years to absorb. Grigos said the team has also done studies, and this is why the project will be built in phases. The project is “shovel ready” and the team has equity and is talking to banks, he said.

Old City Civic and Central Delaware Advocacy Group member Joe Schiavo echoed Corcoran’s statements. West Philadelphia resident, blogger and realtor Gabriel Gotleib said he didn’t think there should be a height limit in this part of the city, and the major roadways and Market-Frankford El stop nearby make the site a perfect one for such density.

Architect Bill Alesker – whose firm designed the World Trade Square proposal, which also consisted of four towers and some residences, but much more office space – said if anywhere on the waterfront was the right spot for tall buildings, this is it. Alesker said the highway behind it, and elevated train, make it right. “I myself don’t consider that this is in any way in conflict with the Master Plan, other than the height of these buildings, which I think is extremely appropriate for this particular location.”

Commissioner Nancy Rogo Trainer said that was a huge exception, since the project is more than double the tallest height the plan suggests the commission allows when it grants a height exception.

Grigos said that other projects approved by the commission have been closer to the height requirement, but “offered nothing else” from the Master Plan. “The Master Plan isn’t just about height,” he said.

Commission chair Alan Greenberger, also deputy mayor for economic development, said some elements of the proposal are very good, but the developer has left some important questions unanswered. “You haven’t really said why you need this much residential in such high buildings,” he said.

On most waterfront parcels, WRA would also need zoning variances to build this high, but not here. The parcel is zoned C4, which has no height restrictions. C4 does have density restrictions, but Grigos said with the density bonus awarded for providing public open space, the project meets the requirement.

Greenberger noted that the open space isn’t called for in Phase I of the plan. One of his concerns is the possibility that Phase I would be all that was built.

Grigos said the team has most of the answers to Greenberger’s questions, and is in the process of getting the rest.

The developer has reached out to Old City, Rivers Edge and Northern Liberties civic associations as well as the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. Meetings with these groups have begun and will continue, Grigos said.

He wasn’t sure when the development team would come back to the commission seeking approval of its plan, but considering the meetings and discussions it wants to have with these groups, it would not be next month.

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com.

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