AAA will take Pennsport auto service center idea to planning commission

AAA hopes to convince the Philadelphia City Planning Commission that its plans for an auto service/repair shop are a good fit for South Columbus Boulevard, even though the city’s long-range plans for the Central Delaware waterfront and the current zoning overlay for the area discourage such uses.

This step – presenting the PCPC with a detailed Plan of Development – is what AAA should have been directed to do after applying for the zoning and affiliated building permit in June 2013. It’s what the interim Delaware River Overlay that was in place at that time called for, but the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections erroneously awarded the permits over-the-counter. In a late February letter, L&I admitted its mistake and announced it was revoking the permits. L&I took this action after receiving letters and phone calls from city and waterfront planners and advocates and First District Councilman Mark Squilla.

AAA has “indicated to both L&I and the Planning Commission that it intends to present a Plan of Development to the Planning Commission and will reserve their right to appeal,” said L&I spokeswoman Rebecca Swanson.

That means if the PCPC doesn’t support AAA’s plan, AAA could appeal L&I’s revocation of the over-the-counter permits to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

“We are reaching out to the community and city agencies  to address any confusion or open issues and are optimistic that this will be resolved amicably and to the satisfaction of all parties,” AAA spokeswoman Jenny Robinson said.

As of the close of business Monday, the PCPC had not yet received a plan of development.

Here’s a little history on the AAA saga at 1601 S. Columbus:

-L&I issued the permits in early January 2014. By then, the Central Delaware Overlay, which prohibits such uses, had been in effect for about seven months.

-Pennsport Civic Association became aware when AAA demolished the building that was on the site, a former construction company. PCA, with support from Squilla, asked L&I to revoke the permit.

-L&I responded that while the overlay was in place when the permit was issued, it was not when AAA applied.

-Pennsport, planners, and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the quasi-city agency which oversees the Central Delaware Master Plan, pointed out that while the current overlay wasn’t in place, the interim overlay was, and so the permits should not have been issued without the applicant going through the Plan of Development process the interim overlay called for.

-At first, L&I said it couldn’t just revoke a permit, and advised Pennsport to appeal to the L&I Review Board. Pennsport did so, and an April 2 hearing was set.

-On Feb. 28, L&I Deputy Commissioner Michael Fink sent AAA a letter advising that after further review, L&I realized the permits were issued by mistake, and they would be revoked in 10 days. This is the same letter in which Fink outlined AAA’s options.

The overlay exists to protect the city’s goals for the waterfront, as outlined in the Master Plan for the Central Delaware. These include creating a more walkable waterfront with active, mixed-use development and better ties to city neighborhoods.

Under the POD process, AAA will submit plans to the Planning Commission, which can vote in favor or in opposition. Commissioners will weigh the plan against the interim overlay and the Central Delaware Master Plan to make their decision, but they will have much discretion, since the interim overlay does not explicitly forbid the uses AAA intends at the site. Commissioners are also likely to get input from people other than the applicant.

Pennsport Civic has said it will oppose the project at this location through the duration.

Central Delaware Advocacy Group Chairman Matt Ruben said Monday that he was contacted by AAA’s attorney, and CDAG will be meeting with AAA about the project. CDAG will be reviewing the POD, and evaluating it relative  to the “principles and recommendations of the Master Plan for the Central Delaware.”

CDAG had sent letters about the proposed AAA project to planning and L&I regarding the fact that the interim overlay was not applied before the permit was issued. They did not address the proposed use in their letter.

Ruben said CDAG won’t take an official position on the project on the POD until CDAG has completed its review, but “it’s hard to see auto repair and service, on the river side of Columbus Blvd., as the highest and best use for that site.”

Ruben referred AAA’s attorney to Pennsport Civic, which is one of the organizations with a representative on the CDAG board. “Given that CDAG makes every reasonable effort to support our local member-civics, Pennsport Civic’s feelings about this use will of course figure prominently in our deliberations,” he said.

When the POD process was the only way to proceed with waterfront projects that met the criteria – this one does because it’s on the river-side of the street – commissioners did approve several projects that did not conform precisely to the goals of the master plan.

In June 2012, the PCPC approved a plan of development for Ensemble Real Estate’s Marina View Towers at 230-250 N. Columbus Boulevard, close to the Ben Franklin Bridge. That September, they approved the plan of development for a 209-unit residential development at Piers 34 and 35, also an Ensemble project, after the developer amended the plan with an expanded public walkway to the riverfront and larger space for ground-level retail. Both of these developments are taller than the 100-foot maximum suggested by the master plan.

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