AAA ponders options in Pennsport

AAA is considering its next step regarding the permits it needs to build a car repair shop at 1601 S. Columbus Blvd that L&I issued over-the-counter, but now intends to revoke.

Such uses are not allowed by-right on the site because it sits within the Central Delaware Overlay. The overlay exists to protect with zoning code the city’s goals for the waterfront – creating a more walkable waterfront with active, mixed-use development and better ties to city neighborhoods. It had been in effect for about seven months when the Philadelphia Department of Licenses & Inspections awarded the zoning and affiliated building permits in January of this year.

At first, L&I said issuance was the right move, because while the permit was issued in January, the application was made in June, on the day before the new overlay went into effect. But late last month, L&I changed its mind, citing a fact that community and waterfront advocates and planners had been bringing to its attention for weeks: Until the new overlay was in place, an interim overlay was “law”. And an over-the-counter issuance didn’t meet the requirements of the previous zoning law, either.

Under the old overlay, a developer proposing any project on the water-side of Delaware Avenue/Columbus Boulevard between Allegheny and Oregon avenues needed to submit a detailed Plan of Development to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission for review and a vote.

“L&I went through AAA’s application and permit with a fine-tooth comb and determined that a Plan of Development was never reviewed as part of the initial process,” L&I spokeswoman Rebecca Swanson said. “As such, L&I sent a notice of intent to revoke in 10 days.”

Swanson didn’t know how exactly the 10-day clock runs. But the letter from L&I Deputy Commissioner Michael Fink is dated Feb. 28. If weekend days count, it seems 10 days would be up on Monday.

Fink’s letter  gives AAA three options to consider during that 10 days: Submit a POD to the PCPC. Allow the permit to be revoked and then re-apply under the current overlay. Appeal L&I’s intent to revoke.

“We’re aware of the L&I letter and are reviewing our options,” AAA spokeswoman Jenny Robinson said.

If AAA submits a plan of development to the planning commission, commissioners would weigh the plan against the interim overlay and the Central Delaware Master Plan – the planning document on which both the old and new overlays were based – to decide whether or not to endorse it.

If AAA allows the permit to be revoked and re-applies under the current overlay, “This would launch the usual permit application review,” Swanson said. “The permit would be denied by L&I because of the overlay, so the application would go to the (Zoning Board of Adjustment) on appeal.” In other words, AAA would need a variance or variances.

If AAA appeals the revocation of the permit, that would also go to the ZBA, Swanson said.

Unless AAA abandons its plans for 1601 S. Columbus, Pennsport Civic Association “will continue to oppose that use at that location,” said Pennsport Civic President Jim Moylan.

Pennsport asked L&I to rescind the permit as soon as the community became aware that it had been issued, but was told permits couldn’t just be revoked, and they had to file an appeal. They did, and an April 2 hearing was set before the L&I Review Board. Swanson said that appeal is now “technically moot” since L&I is revoking the permit.

“If L&I is saying our appeal is moot, then I will be expecting to be reimbursed my filing fee,” Moylan said. “But until I receive some official notice from L&I that states the appeal hearing is canceled (and we get our money back), I intend to be there.”

Moylan has said that anybody can make a mistake, but he is frustrated that Pennsport has had to pay for the appeal, and could potentially face future legal fees, because L&I issued a permit in error.

L&I heard the same argument for revocation – that even if the new overlay didn’t apply when AAA made its permit application, the old one did – from both the city planning commission and the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, an organization of representatives from civics and other organizations that defends the city’s goals for the waterfront.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation – the quasi-city agency that oversaw development of the master plan and pushed for both the old and new overlays –  didn’t speak directly to L&I, but voiced its concerns to city planning, said DRWC Planner/Project Manager Karen Thompson. “They did the right thing,” Thompson said of L&I’s decision to revoke.

Thompson said while all is hypothetical until AAA decides what to do, she anticipates DRWC would testify against the proposed AAA project to whichever body is making the pertinent decisions.

Allowing car repair and service in an area where the city wants to reduce car traffic and increase pedestrians, cyclist and transit use would not only set a bad precedent for the effectiveness of the waterfront master plan and overlay, she said, but the opportunity to build something more in keeping with those goals, at a key entry point to the Central Delaware, would be lost.

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