Just to the southeast of the Riverview Theater multiplex lies a vast swathe of marshland on the Delaware River, where developers have tried to build for decades.
The latest project is a 448-unit residential complex — the bulk of which will be in a multi-family structure — supported by one-for-one parking and over 12,000 square feet of retail space. The apartment structure will be built first, followed by 92 townhomes, according to developer National Realty Investment Advisors.
“This is the scale of development that belongs at the waterfront,” said Nancy Rogo Trainer, chair of the city’s Civic Design Review committee and a professor at Drexel University. “We want to see more of this.”
The proposed site sits between Tasker and Dickinson streets on South Columbus Boulevard and is part of a vast vacant tract where Foxwoods Resorts tried to build a casino. After community opposition killed the casino plan, Bart Blatstein reacquired it.
He first bought it in the ‘90s, but sold it for a casino project. Blatstein still owns the neighboring parcel to the west, where he’s been fighting to build a controversial super-Wawa gas station.
National Realty Investment Advisors purchased the 1401 S. Columbus Blvd. site from Blatstein in 2017 with a plan that included nothing but townhouses —169 of them. The suburban-style proposal ran in direct contrast to the dream of a mid-rise multi-family future envisioned by Philadelphia’s master plan for the Central Delaware River Waterfront. After that proposal was shouted down, a second arose featuring a multi-family building shaped like a saucer.
On Tuesday, the advisory review board staffed with planners, architects and developers reviewed the latest iteration of the New Jersey-based developer’s project. Designed by BLT Architects, the proposed multi-family building features two mid-rise towers connected by a long parking podium.
The northern end of the multi-family building, on Dickinson Street, is where the retail space for two commercial enterprises will be housed. As the first major development in the neighborhood, the architects said that they saw the retail presence as an important means of activating the space and attracting people to the site who aren’t residents.
But the project received criticism from planners from the city’s Planning Commission, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC), and the CDR board for failing to properly connect the project to the public waterfront.
At a time when the region is investing big to make the waterfront a destination with new attractions such as the five-year-old Spruce Street Harbor Park to the coming park at Penn’s Landing, officials said the plan doesn’t do enough to knit the western edge of the private property to the river’s edge or to a planned Delaware Riverfront Trail that would run along the waterfront.
Karen Thompson of DRWC said that she is especially concerned by the southern end of the multi-family building, which abuts Tasker Street. She said the project as it is planned would disrupt a key public connector to the riverfront and the trail that her organization is championing, discouraging accessibility in a diverse and growing section of the city.
“This plan goes backward on Tasker Street, which is a key connection to the Delaware River Trail,” said Thompson. “We understand loading has to go somewhere, but this is adding two curb-cuts to Tasker and it’s not showing any connections to the Delaware River Trail, which we saw in the last plan.”
But in the end, the CDR board voted in favor of allowing the development to move forward without coming back for a second review.
Leo Addimando, a CDR board member and the managing partner at Alterra Property Group, made a forceful case for the project in the face of myriad criticisms from his colleagues.
“We can nitpick about what this might look like in a pie in the sky world that will never exist in this whole section of town,” said Addimando, who is also vice-president of the Building Industry Association. “But this is a project trying to put a very well designed handsome multifamily building and 100 nicely designed townhomes in what is today just a marsh.”