Bill that would allow city to transfer PRA-owned land to Philadelphia International Airport is held in committee

A bill that would allow the airport to acquire 79 acres of land in Eastwick, near the airport and John Heinz Wildlife Refuge, was held in council’s public property committee Wednesday.

The land is currently owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, but the option to develop it has been held by developer
Korman Residential for decades.

While the bill, introduced by District 2 Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, would allow the city to take the land for the airport via condemnation, if necessary, it was anticipated that such action would not be needed because Korman had agreed to give up the development rights as part of a settlement to another condemnation.

Korman did not pay a one-time fee for the development rights. Under the conditions of their agreement with the PRA, they have instead purchased acreage as they developed it.

Years ago, the city condemned another parcel of land Korman held the development rights to in order to expand a parking lot for airport employees. The city paid Korman about $4 million for the development rights. Korman challenged that this was not just compensation for the land, and sued. The Board of Tax Review decided the city paid Korman about $9.5 million less than the land was worth. The settlement calls for the city to pay the additional $9.5 million to Korman, and for Korman to drop the lawsuit and give up development rights on the 79 acres.

According to a printed copy of the testimony that Philadelphia International Airport Chief Executive Officer Mark Gale had planned to give the Rules Committee Wednesday, zoning changes allowing Korman to build a 722-unit apartment complex on an adjacent 35 acres now zoned for single family homes “is also a condition of settlement.”

But that zoning bill, also introduced by Johnson, was held in Rules Tuesday. Both that bill and the real estate bill that was held in committee today were held at Johnson’s request. They will likely not be taken up again until September.

Johnson’s decision yesterday came after hours of testimony from people both for and against the apartment project. The developer and Commerce Department testified it would bring more residents, economic development and tax revenue. Residents and advocates for the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge argued those benefits aren’t worth giving up a buffer of undeveloped land for the refuge, or increasing impervious surfaces and thereby causing more flooding in a flooding-prone area.

While the land is in a flood-prone area, the developer said Water Department regulations mean it would have to be built in a way to
actually reduce run-off. The developer has also committed to working with Heinz to build a buffer between the apartments and the refuge, allowing a walking trail that would connect the Eastwick Train Station to the reserve, and using native plants.

Residents yelled for Johnson to withdraw the bill, and after yesterday’s hearing, he said he asked it be held even though he thinks Korman’s plan would be good for the community, to give residents time to get more information they need.

Johnson was not at the Rules Committee hearing Wednesday, but Councilman-At-Large James Kenney, who was livid when he learned of the connection between the zoning bill and the law suit, was pleased the bill was held.

“I think the issues that were raised yesterday gave us all cause for pause,” he said.

When asked if he was concerned about legal exposure, since the passage of the bills is tied to an agreement that would end the lawsuit, Kenney said that shouldn’t sway council’s actions.

The land has been undeveloped for 48 years, he said, and the city shouldn’t have to pay large amounts of money to get a developer out of the way on land that is tax-payer owned, he said.

“I want to make them drag this through the court and make them pay as many legal fees as possible until 2015, and then they are out of here,” he said, referring to the date Korman’s current development options expire.

About eight years ago, Council voted to give Korman – which has developed large parcels of the land it holds development rights on with apartments, single family homes and commercial properties – a 10-year extension on their development rights for undeveloped acreage. Kenney said he is trying to find out whether he voted for that or not. “If I did, I was wrong,” he said.

Gale’s testimony says the airport plans to keep the parcels “as open space” in the near term, but could use them “if and when needed for development over the coming years.”

In the event of any future development, the city would hold discussions with “the councilman and the community,” the document
states. City planners have said the airport also promised to hold discussions with them.

A third bill related to this case, which condemns city streets that Korman would use as private streets within its development, has
already been passed by the streets committee.

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