A sense of urgency at CDAG

May 14, 2009

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

Members of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group will next week urge the City Planning Commission to approve a zoning plan for the central Delaware riverfront.

CDAG members still have concerns about the zoning overlay legislation proposed by First District Councilman Frank DiCicco – including significant differences in opinion with riverfront property owners about how the legislation should be changed. But there is time to hash those things out later, said Chairman Steven Weixler at Thursday morning’s CDAG meeting. Right now, he said, the most important thing is getting Planning Commission approval for the bill so it can go before City Council’s Rules Committee on June 9 and then on to full council before the summer break.

“We don’t believe that allowing this bill to go over the summer recess is a good idea,” Weixler said.

But the landowners are not in that kind of rush. They think more time is needed to work out details before any legislation is passed, said Craig Schelter, executive director of Development Workshop Inc., a non-profit that aims to promote real estate development in the city. On Tuesday, they will ask that the Planning Commission not approve the Central Delaware Waterfront zoning overlay, Schelter said.  Links to video from Thursday’s CDAG meeting follow this article.

Schelter, a property owner representative, is among those who have been meeting with CDAG and DiCicco to discuss both sides’ positions. Also at the meetings, the most recent of which was last week:
Tom Chapman of Blank Rome, Rich Lombardo of Ballard Spahr and Doug Grayson, an executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust. All are owner representatives except Grayson, who is part owner of an irregularly shaped parcel behind the South Philadelphia Wal*Mart. Schelter and Lombardo are former directors of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission; Chapman served as the commission’s acting director.

The Planning Commission’s current executive director, Alan Greenberger, supports the zoning overlay and has said he will recommend that the Commission approve it.

DiCicco and CDAG see the overlay as a placeholder that will protect the 7-mile stretch of land against development that is contrary to the city’s long-range goals for the Central Delaware Waterfront until the city’s Master Plan for that area is completed, about 16 months from now.

Schelter says it’s senseless to do any zoning before the Master Plan is finished. There’s no need to protect the land from anything, he said, because the bad economy has resulted in a development stand-still.

Another issue that the landowners and CDAG disagree on is the provision calling for a 50- to 100-foot, waterfront setback. CDAG members agree with the landowners that a 100-foot setback wouldn’t work for all properties, but they want to set the bar that high. The proposed bill outlines a process by which exceptions can be granted, they say. CDAG member John Scorsone called the property owner’s raising of this issue a “red herring.” He pulled maps of all the properties along the waterfront, and said the very few that would be negatively affected should not hold back the legislation – not when the law has a provision to deal with them.

But Schelter said Scorsone’s maps do not show the on-the-ground characteristics of the land, and a 100-foot setback could create development problems on even some large parcels. He also pointed to another pending zoning overlay that would apply to the riverfront north of the Central Delaware. This proposal calls for a 50-foot setback, and Schelter questions why there would be such a difference. The landowners see the setback, and the frequent public access points that CDAG supports, as a taking of their land. Schelter suggested the city could start working on the multi-use, riverfront trail immediately on the parcels of land that are currently publicly owned, and work out these details before moving forward with the rest.

At the request of city planning officials, Paul Lonie, formerly the city’s chief surveyor and a Westrum executive who is currently the capital program director of the Delaware River City Corporation – a non-profit working to assemble the riverfront trail along the North Delaware – attended last week’s meeting between CDAG representatives and the landowners as a moderator.

After Thursday’s CDAG meeting, Lonie said the approach of getting some version of the overlay in place now was right on, because that would give Planning Commission staff something to work with.

At the request of the landowners, DiCicco added a provision to the overlay that requires the Planning Commission to come up with specific guidelines for development along the Central Delaware. These guidelines will be developed through a public process, so CDAG – and everyone else – can provide comment to help shape them.

During the meeting, Lonie likened DiCicco’s role to that of a judge. CDAG will give him their concerns and the landowners will share theirs, he said. It will be up to DiCicco to weave compromises into the bill.

Lonie planned to suggest one compromise himself, based on input from both sides: Something could be inserted into the bill saying its provisions would not go into effect until the Planning Commission guidelines are complete, but that no permits could be pulled until that time, either.

Weixler said he would very quickly email DiCicco’s chief of public policy with a list of CDAG’s positions on the legislation. The hope, he said, is that further discussions among CDAG members and with DiCicco’s office will lead to compromises acceptable to both CDAG and the developers by June 9, when the Rules Committee is set to hold a hearing on the overlay.

Weixler also said he hoped there would be more meetings between CDAG and the landowners. Schelter said his group is willing to keep talking, too.

See video of the CDAG meeting: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII.

Contact the reporter at kelliespatrick@gmail.com

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