AAA says its plan for S. Columbus fits with the city’s riverfront vision; critics say no such car-centered business could

AAA Mid-Atlantic says the auto service/travel agency/insurance agency/retail store it plans for 1601 S. Columbus Boulevard would fit within the city’s plans for a pedestrian- and bike-friendly Central Delaware waterfront — especially since the plans were modified according to city planning staff recommendations and the business’ existing neighbors are big-box stores.

Representatives of the quasi-city agency that oversaw development of the Central Delaware Master Plan, an advocacy group that exists to defend the plan, and the Pennsport Civic Association say the driver-focused business would hamper the city’s goals and residents’ wishes to ease pedestrian and cyclist traffic and link walkers and bicyclists with the waterfront.

The current waterfront zoning overlay, designed to put the goals of the Central Delaware Master Plan into city zoning code, prohibits a business like the one AAA proposes. But since AAA got its zoning application in the day before it went into effect, the facility could operate there – if AAA convinces the Philadelphia City Planning Commission it should.

AAA representatives began trying to win planning commissioners support  in an information-only session yesterday, while waterfront planners and civic advocates argued the board should say no.

AAA has reduced the number of driving entrances to the site from four to two – that’s one curb cut each on Columbus Boulevard and Tasker Street, AAA representatives Brad Murr and Andrew DeFonzo said. They’ve added trees. They’ve pushed the rectangular building up against the streets – it used to be in the center of the site, located between the Home Depot and the former Foxwoods site where local developer Bart Blatstein plans for mixed use development.

The parking that once surrounded the building is now behind it, they told Philadelphia City Planning Commissioners Tuesday. The renderings shown depict windows lining the facades facing Columbus and Tasker, with the door customers would enter located at the corner, on a diagonal.

The sidewalks will be improved, and no auto service bays will be visible from Tasker or Columbus, said project attorney Carl Primavera. The travel agency/retail portion of the business will be up front, and “It’s extremely urban,” he said.

“Urban” is the opposite of how the AAA plan was described by representatives of the quasi-city Delware River Waterfront Corporation, the Central Delaware Advocacy Group and the Pennsport Civic Association. They said the driver-focused business would hamper the city’s goals and residents’ wishes to ease pedestrian and cyclist traffic and link walkers and bicyclists with the waterfront. A single-story building with a surface parking lot may be what was built on the water 10 years ago, but it shouldn’t be built today, they said.

“Adding another auto-focused development at this very key intersection for South Philadelphia and the waterfront adds more cars, more congestion, and is exactly the opposite of the city’s goals for Columbus Boulevard and for the waterfront,” said Karen Thompson, planner/project manager at the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the agency that oversaw development of the waterfront master plan.

Tuesday’s session was precursor to an upcoming Plan of Development hearing where a court stenographer will record proceedings and Commissioners will vote to determine whether or not the project moves forward.

The commissioners have a lot of discretion. “There are no set criteria, but always our interest is about the public realm and the relationship of the proposal to any plans that are out there, particularly any ones that the commission adopted,” said Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger, who is also the city’s deputy mayor for economic development and, because of his role, a member of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation’s board.

Thompson reminded the board that they unanimously adopted the Master Plan for the Central Delaware last year. She said that Tasker Street is an especially important street for pedestrian and cyclist access to the trail that runs behind the big ox stores, and it will be Pennsport’s only means of connecting to that waterfront.

She noted the site to the north that Blatstein just purchased would likely become an urban, walkable, mixed-use development in keeping with the master plan. Allowing this adjacent property to develop “in the way development happened 10 years ago” would set an unfortunate precedent and “set the Master Plan back just as it’s beginning to take hold and create positive change for the waterfront.”

Primavera said from either Delaware or Tasker, the business would seem like any store or restaurant, with its customer entry and windows facing the street. The travel agency/store would be located behind these windows. The 10 auto bays are located in the rear of the building, with five visible along the southern-most facade, which faces the Home Depot parking lot. The other five bays can’t be seen from the outside, but a single door that provides access is located on the eastern most facade. This is the facade closest to the river, but its immediate neighbor is Home Depot’s outdoor storage.

Customers would drive in from either Columbus or Tasker, park in the spaces behind the building, and walk to the Columbus/Tasker entrance, Murr said. An employee would fetch their car and drive it into either one of the five visible bays facing south or the single door facing east.

Primavera also noted that while neighborhood residents like to walk and bike on weekends, they need car services daily.

In an interview after the meeting, Blatstein said his plans for the property to the north would “absolutely” be in keeping with the Master Plan for the Central Delaware. He said he has no problem with AAA, and it may be possible to craft this development in a “to satisfy the needs of the planning commission, Pennsport and other interested parties.”

But “the design needs to be sensitive to the new waterfront.”

Blatstein said he’ll personally be looking for a sidewalk of at least 12 feet on Tasker – sufficient space for people and trees. The AAA car access on Tasker should be an entrance only, he said, as Tasker could become a one-way there in the future.

Thompson is right that this issue is important to Pennsport. Pennsport Civic sent two board members to testify – Rene Goodwin, the representative to CDAG, and Brian Newswanger, an architect with Atlantes Architects.

Both reminded the PCPC of the unusual path the project took before it landed before them: AAA was first granted an over-the-counter zoning permit by L&I. Pennsport discovered this when workers began tearing down the former construction company that was on the site.

Pennsport representatives were at first perplexed because the use isn’t allowed by right under the current Central Delaware Overlay. When told that the permit was applied for the day before the current overlay went into effect, Pennsport – and later CDAG – asked that the permit be revoked, because the terms of the interim overlay that was in place at that time weren’t enforced by L&I, either.

At first L&I said they couldn’t revoke a permit and told Pennsport to appeal it. But earlier this year, L&I changed its mind and told AAA they’d have to either re-apply under the new overlay and seek zoning relief, or file a Plan of Development for PCPC consideration, as the old overlay required. AAA’s decision to file that POD brought them before the PCPC Tuesday.

Goodwin spoke of the millions of dollars spent toward waterfront planning and improvement projects like Race Street Pier and Washington Avenue Green.

“But be very clear (the plan) is not a City beautification project. This is about possibly the largest single development scheme since Ed Bacon envisioned Society Hill, the benefits of which are still being realized. This is economic development in its highest form.”

But Craig Schelter of the pro-development non-profit, The Development Workshop, asked the PCPC to consider how much sense it makes to “hold off the owner of this site from being able to develop it in a way that is sensitive to the neighborhood, while still paying taxes on it, because of the hope that the land use would change over what is predominately there south of Tasker Street today.”

Schelter, a former PCPC executive director and a frequent critic of the Central Delaware Master Plan, said AAA’s plan for Tasker wouldn’t impede bicyclists or pedestrians, and the business would produce tax revenue and jobs.

AAA will present their plans to Pennsport Civic Association on April 29 and will be back before the PCPC for their Plan of Development hearing sometime after that.

Commissioners had few questions Tuesday, but they’ll get another chance to ask at the hearing.

Read written copies of some of the testimony and CDAG’s letter to the commisison, below.

In the video below, AAA representatives Andrew DeFonzo (of D.L. Howell and Associates) and Brad Murr and attorney Carl Primavera present AAA’s Plan of Development to Planning Commissioners. Testimony is also given by DRWC Planner/Project Manager Karen Thompson, Pennsport Civic Board Member Rene Goodwin, Central Delaware Advocacy Group Vice Chairman Joe Schiavo, Pennsport Civic Board Member Brian Newswanger,  The Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia’s Sarah Clark Stewart and the Development Workshop’s Craig Schelter.

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