Adopt or accept the waterfront plan, what’s the difference?

As of Saturday morning, top city planners still had not decided whether to recommend that the planning commission “adopt” the entire long-range plan for the Central Delaware Waterfront or “accept” some portions of the six-mile stretch.

“We are still wrestling with the pros and cons, and probably will be to the last minute,” said Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger, who chairs the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.

The last minute would be Tuesday, when planning staff is set to recommend action on the Central Delaware Waterfront Master Plan to the planning commission so that body can vote. 

Advocates for the waterfront plan and from the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the quasi-city agency that oversaw the plan’s creation at the behest of the mayor, are alarmed by a possibility that surfaced late last week: Staff would recommend commissioners adopt the central portion of the plan from Mifflin Street in the south to Montgomery Avenue in the north and accept the parts on either end, from Mifflin Street south to Oregon Avenue and from Montgomery Avenue north to Allegheny Avenue.

While fans of the plan, critics of the plan who are in favor of less than total adoption, and Delaware River Waterfront Corporation President Tom Corcoran were not certain of the legal difference between adopting and accepting a plan, they all agreed adopted plans have more teeth.

This is correct, Greenberger said in a phone interview Saturday. In short, he said, if a plan is adopted, “any regulatory body reviewing a proposal would be required to consider the intentions of the master plan in evaluating that proposal.” If a plan is accepted, “we accept the plan as a working set of guidelines, and we may or may not consider it in evaluation of projects that come before us.”

The Planning Commission is not obligated to follow staff’s voting recommendations. It most frequently has, but that outcome is not always a lock.

Greenberger said he’s not a lawyer, and the difference between accepting and adopting could  always be challenged in court.

When asked if he had a preference on the two options for the Central Delaware Master Plan, Greenberger said he hadn’t reached a decision yet. He said he and Planning Commission Executive Director Gary Jastrzab are together trying to decide what is best for the city – it’s not that each of them has a different position and they are negotiating with the other.

Greenberger said he did not feel comfortable discussing the pros and cons of adopting all or accepting portions of the waterfront master plan until a decision was made.

Greenberger has supported adoption of the master plan in the past. In fact, as an executive board member of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation – he helped shape the plan.  He voted in October to support the resolution encouraging the planning commission to adopt the master plan. He has spoken about the plan, and the early achievement of some of its goals, such as the Race Street Pier, with enthusiasm.

If what is best for the city ever conflicts with the goals of the waterfront corporation, however, the city will always win, he said. “It complicates my life some, that I serve on the Waterfront Corporation board as a representative of the city,” Greenberger said. Most of the time, the corporation and the city have compatible goals, he said. “But my higher obligation is always to the city in the whole,” he said. “I have to stand with the city, it is my higher responsibility.”

Greenberger pointed out that adopted plans and accepted plans can have the same or similar impact, practically speaking.

City regulatory bodies can choose to consult a plan that is accepted, even if aren’t required to, he said.  And just because they are required to consult a plan that is adopted, that doesn’t mean they have to follow what it says in every instance.

If a riverfront project came forward in an area with an adopted master plan and it met all the zoning requirements, the regulating body would most likely have to let the project proceed, even if it didn’t fit in with the master plan, he said.

Comprehensive plans are policy, not law, like the zoning code is, he said.

But wouldn’t an adopted plan, as part of the city’s comprehensive plan, influence zoning law?

“Yes, that is the intention, that is for sure,” Greenberger said. As time goes on, parts of any master plan will continue to make sense, and will guide zoning changes, he said. Other parts will no longer make sense, and won’t be used. “It isn’t like the Bible,” he said. “You can’t freeze the truth in a moment in time. That’s not the way cities work or grow.”

The base zoning for the Central Delaware Waterfront has already been set in the new zoning code. There is a placeholder in the code for a new Central Delaware Waterfront Overlay. Planning Commission Deputy Executive Director Eva Gladstein, who oversaw the development of the new zoning code, has been working with DRWC Planning Director Sarah Thorp to craft a zoning overlay consistent with the master plan. It has not been finalized, but the draft was discussed at last month’s Central Delaware Advocacy Group meeting, and it matched up with the plan at that point.

Planners could chose to use an accepted master plan to guide decisions about the zoning code, Greenberger said. But they wouldn’t have to.

The Planning Commission created the accepted plans category within the past couple of years for a specific reason, Greenberger said.

“A lot of planning goes on that does not involve the planning commission,” he said. Community groups, civic associations and foundations have all done plans, he said. “We wanted to have a way to acknowledge the good work people are doing, but we didn’t want to be bound to them in the same way, since we didn’t do them. In some cases, we didn’t even participate in them,” he said. “So we created the category of accepted, so we could accept the plan as a working set of guidelines, and we may, or may not consider it in an evaluation that comes before us.”

Since the creation of the category, the planning commission has accepted plans from Logan, Yorktown, Francisville and other places. “It is generally good work, but we don’t want to hook ourselves to every bit of it,” he said.

Greenberger said to remember that the DRWC is a separate entity from the city.

When PlanPhilly suggested it was surely more tied to the city than a civic association, since Mayor Michael Nutter created it to oversee city waterfront property and city representatives sit on the board, Greenberger said it is “a different animal” similar to the Redevelopment Authority or PIDC. “They all do planning work that needs to then intersect with official city policy.”

When asked why some portions of the Central Delaware Waterfront Plan might be more suited to adoption, and others to acceptance, Greenberger said he didn’t want to talk about this situation in particular.

“Generically, one reason we might accept versus adopt is the lack of certainty about a future,” he said. Greenberger stressed the word “might,” since “A plan is attempting to create a sent of intentions or outlooks that run 20 or 30 years into the future.”

“The Central Delaware has parts where we can be fairly certain of the validity of the plan for that length of time, and other parts where we can’t be so certain. The plan acknowledges that high level of uncertainty,” he said.

The areas that the plan identifies as less likely to change uses in the foreseeable future are in the north and south.

Greenberger pointed out that the geographical boundaries of the Central Delaware Master Plan were not set by planners. They coincided with the boundaries of former First District Councilman Frank DiCicco, who got the waterfront revitalization planning started with the help of then-mayor John Street.

Planners might have come up with different boundaries, he said. The southern end of the master plan includes land that has port uses. “The plan says we’re not messing with that. We’re not projecting a change in that land use,” he said, but it’s included because it was part of DiCicco’s district.

“At the far north, the plan reaches into active industrial areas that we have no interest in changing,” he said. “In fact, we have interest in stabilizing and promoting that use.”

Greenberger said the consideration for the recommendation to commissioners is limited to adopting and accepting – there is no discussion of excluding any portion of the plan.

Tuesday’s special meeting of the planning commission will be held at 1:00 p.m. at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 19th and Vine streets, in the Montgomery Auditorium. In addition to the vote on the Central Delaware Master Plan, the commission is scheduled to hear informal presentations on the Central Delaware Zoning Overlay and the draft Zoning Code regulations.

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