CDAG, developers talk at invite-only meeting

April 1, 2009

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

Several members of The Central Delaware Advocacy Group (CDAG) met with a small group of riverfront developers Tuesday, in hopes of forging a new working relationship between two groups that don’t always see eye-to-eye.

The invitation-only meeting, arranged by City Councilman Frank DiCicco at CDAG’s request, was not open to the public – not even all of CDAG, whose members represent 15 waterfront neighborhoods as the City moves toward new development guidelines for the Central Delaware Waterfront, were present. Deputy Mayor Andy Altman, Planning Commission Director Alan Greenberger, DiCicco and his chief of  policy and public affairs, Brian Abernathy also attended the meeting.

Attendees willing to speak about the session described it as a successful turning point in the relationship between community groups and waterfront developers and property owners – groups  they say must work together if the 10-year “Action Plan for the Central Delaware,” authored by PennPraxis, is to ever become a reality.

It was a getting-to-know-you, trust-building kind of meeting, said CDAG Vice Chair Jeff Rush, who is president of the Queen Village Civic Association.

“I feel that we established a genuine foundation for the ongoing dialogue essential to the success of the Civic Vision and am encouraged by today’s conversation,” said CDAG president Steven Weixler in a written statement. “All of us realize that only through collaboration can Philadelphia’s riverfront thrive.”

Brian Abernathy, DiCicco’s director of public policy, would not provide details of the meeting, but said, “It was a good first discussion and I think it helped to provide perspective to both sides.”

But critics – including some CDAG members who say they were neither invited to the meeting or informed that it was happening Tuesday – think the private session was inappropriate for a group that has long advocated for openness and transparency. CDAG’s own meetings have been open to the public. The group’s bylaws, still being fine-tuned, call for openness.

“This is the old way of doing things, and I guess old habits are hard to break,” said CDAG member John Scorsone, who represents the River’s Edge Community Association.

Up for discussion Tuesday was DiCicco’s proposed zoning overlay for the Central Delaware. The City is working on a master plan for the waterfront, and zoning that will be based on that plan will set the rules for future development.  But Altman estimates it will take about 16 months to complete the process. DiCicco and Abernathy say the zoning overlay is a placeholder meant to keep any development that happens in the meantime in line with the Central Delaware Vision and related Action Plan.

Both CDAG and the property owners have concerns about DiCicco’s proposal – concerns that have at times made them want to take the legislation in opposite directions.  For example, the overlay calls for a 50- to 100-foot set-aside of land adjacent to the river to create green space and public access. CDAG members have said the overlay should require 100 feet, with property owners having to prove a hardship to get the lesser amount. Some property owners say even 50 feet is too much.

Craig Schelter, executive director of Development Workshop, Inc.,  a non-profit whose mission is to promote real estate development in the city and a group DiCicco consulted about the overlay, was at the meeting. He did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

So why was this a private meeting?

At a CDAG meeting early last month, DiCicco suggested that a small group representing CDAG meet with a small group of developers so that they could build a better understanding of each other’s concerns.  DiCicco said it would be similar to what happens when he sends a developer to talk to a community organization’s zoning committee. It would be best to get the outstanding issues on both sides resolved before the proposed zoning overlay gets to the public hearing stage, he said, because “It becomes too cumbersome to try to figure all that out at the public hearing.”

Abernathy said the property owners were willing to meet with a larger group, but CDAG suggested a meeting “with a smaller representative group of their zoning committee.”

CDAG member Caryn Hunt, who represents Neighbors Allied for the Best Riverfront, did not know the meeting had been held. But when it was described to her, she said it’s exactly what she expected to happen. “This was something that we discussed,” she said. “Steve (Weixler) proceeded as agreed upon. I do not have an issue with it.”

CDAG member Rene Goodwin was not at the meeting and did not know it had been scheduled until late Monday night. But Goodwin, who represents Pennsport, praised DiCicco’s diplomacy skills in “attempting to keep a balance between the demands of the developers and the requirements of the community. It is imperative to build a good foundation based on a spirit of cooperation and the realization that a good waterfront development plan benefits all parties. Until the foundation for that sense of cooperation is clearly rooted, we must proceed somewhat cautiously.”

From Rush’s perspective, Tuesday’s meeting was simply “an initial meeting between the principals” designed to “foster trust in a new relationship” between CDAG and the property owners. “Content-wise, this was not a meeting that would benefit the public as much as it benefits the process.”

There will be more discussions between CDAG and the developers. “Based on the feedback from the first meeting, a more open series of meetings seems likely,” Goodwin said. Hunt said she would definitely participate in future meetings. “Talking – can only help further everyone’s perspective,” she said. “Communication is a good thing.”

The explanations do not appease Scorsone. He said he greatly appreciates DiCicco’s work on this issue, and he agrees that developers are essential to the process. At the last CDAG meeting, he suggested the group invite every landowner along the Central Delaware to participate in CDAG. But none of that is reason to have a private discussion, he said, and he thinks the property owners should have been invited to a regular CDAG meeting.

“Everything we want to do is on paper. All our thoughts and ideas are out in the open,” Scorsone said. “I really don’t understand why there needed to be a separate meeting.”

Paul Boni, a Society Hill resident and attorney for Casino-Free Philadelphia, said he can see no reason for a private meeting, either. “The entire Penn Praxis process has been very open and public, to the point of meetings being videotaped,”  he said. “Why on earth would anybody have private meetings when it comes time to making these tough decisions?”

Rush said progress was made Tuesday. “We came a little bit closer in terms of the overlay,” he said. “We are probably pretty close, and have a better understanding of our respective positions.”

Echoing the words of  Greenberger at a recent CDAG meeting, Rush said it was clear that on some parcels, a 100-foot set -back would not make any sense. “It would be 80 (to) 90 percent of the land,” he said. So while he likes the 100-foot set-back, he can see that in some cases, the size of the development-free swath will have to be “project specific.”

At that regular CDAG meeting
, there seemed to be agreement among the group that some projects would require a smaller set back, but that this should be an exception granted by the Planning Commission only if the developer could prove it was necessary. Some were concerned that the “50- to 100-feet” language would make it too easy for any development to be built with a 50-foot river set-back.

Some CDAG members said they would bring up their concerns about Tuesday’s meeting at the next regular CDAG meeting, scheduled for 8 a.m., April 9, in the community room at Society Hill Towers.

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