City says feds need to build earthen berm to provide flooding relief in Eastwick, and 722 apartments won’t make it worse

Flooding in Eastwick is a very real problem, but it would not be made worse by a proposed 722-unit apartment complex, the Philadelphia water commissioner and the deputy mayor who oversees his department told city council’s transportation and utilities committee Tuesday.

In fact, Water Department Commissioner Howard Neukrug and Deputy Mayor for Transportation and Utilities Rina Cutler said water department storm water regulations for new development mean the building of the Korman Residential project would reduce the risks of neighborhood flooding. Read Neukrug’s and Cutler’s testimony here.

To really fix the flooding problems in one section of the Eastwick, Neukrug said the city must convince the Army Corps of Engineers to build an earthen berm along a short section of Cobbs Creek to prevent the creek from overflowing its banks into homes on and near Saturn Place, a neighborhood street. Preliminary talks to that end have begun, he said after the hearing, adding that studies would have to show the berm would not have a negative impact downstream.

Over the summer, with the help of the Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition, the water department surveyed residents, and while the results are still being analyzed, Neukrug testified that preliminary results show many flooding issues are not neighborhood problems, but individual property problems. He said the problem may be a blocked drain, or property expansion without the needed drainage adjustments.

Eastwick residents didn’t seem to believe much of what was said. Several who have lived in the neighborhood for decades testified that they know the storm water drains are not big enough, because they have seen water pouring out of them during heavy rains.

Leo Brundage said his Saturn Place home has been flooded several times and now, when it rains, he and his neighbors “have post-traumatic stress.”  He said he is a cancer survivor, and he believes his cancer and that of other residents is related to a nearby superfund site. Some residents said they fear flood waters bring contamination from that site to their homes.

Others said whatever the cause of the flooding, the bigger issue was putting more than 1,000 new residents in the neighborhood before the water problems are remedied. Some spoke of being unable to get in or out of the neighborhood during hurricanes Floyd and Irene. Eastwick Friends & Neighbors member Joanne Graham put it succinctly: “People could drown in their cars trying to get out of Eastwick,” she said.

Residents were not the only ones not ready to believe the development will have no impact. Councilman-at-Large James Kenney, who attended the hearing though he is not on the committee, said the information gathering session would not have happened except for issues that came to light during committee hearings last year on legislation related to a zoning change Korman needs to build the project as planned and a land-transfer agreement related to a dispute between Korman, the city and the city Redevelopment Authority on the value of another parcel not related to the project.

Testimony given during the hearing

Korman has held development rights not only on the 35 acres where it wants to build the apartments, but on 93 adjacent acres, for decades. Under the proposed settlement, Korman would accept $9 million rather than its $17.5 million claim, Cutler said, and would also surrender its development rights on the 93 additional acres to the city. That land would be turned over to the airport for future expansion. 

Under current zoning, Korman could build single family houses across the larger parcel. The zoning change would allow more units on less space.

“I’m a little suspicious when the issues during this project have more to do with the city’s desire to expand the airport, and Korman’s desire to maximize their development potential, than these people’s needs,” Kenney said.

Cutler said that the airport expansion would not be a runway expansion, and that whatever it might be, future hearings would need to be held.

Tuesday’s hearing on flooding issues stemmed from hearings on the zoning and property transfer bills last June. Councilwoman-At-Large Blondell Reynolds Brown asked the water department questions about flooding in the neighborhood, and was not satisfied with the answers. She suggested yesterday’s hearing.

Second District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said it was residents’ claims that they were not adequately informed about the project that led him to hold the bills in committee before council’s summer recess. Yesterday, Johnson, who chairs the committee on transportation and public utilities, said more information is still needed on the current flooding situation, the fixes and any impact the development might have. For that reason, he said, neither the zoning bill nor the property transfer bill will be considered by committee anytime soon.

When asked how that delay might impact the city, considering the settlement with Korman, Johnson said the administration would have to deal with that.

Councilman Johnson on the future of the bills.

The committee spent significant time asking questions to two experts who testified: M. Richard Nalbandian, who is an associate professor of community and regional planning at Temple University, and Franco Montalto, who is an assistant professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering and the director of the Sustainable Water Resources Engineering Laboratory at Drexel.

Montalto testified that the Philadelphia Water Department’s hurdles were among the toughest in the nation, and as such, the developer would be required to take on many extensive studies that would cost both the developer and PWD, whose staff would have to review them, time and money. He said there was not enough information yet to adequately gauge the impact the proposed development would have, but an alternate development site in a non-coastal, less sensitive area would be cheaper and avoid the potential for habitat impact at Heinz.

Local residents and environmentalists have also said  the development could harm the flora and fauna of the adjacent John Heinz Wildlife Refuge. The undeveloped land now serves as a buffer, and any new issues, such as runoff from non-permeable surfaces, domestic animals, light pollution and non-native plants in the development could be a problem.

Nalbandian said the current floodplain maps are not accurate enough to make judgments about risk. Climate change is leading to increased rate of sea level rise along the Middle Atlantic, which impacts the tides in the Delaware Estuary. “It is virtually certain that flood levels will be significantly higher than those presently predicted,” he said.  Like residents, he has concerns that emergency access to the area would be cut off in a major flooding event, leaving people stranded. “Therefore, if the rezoning and redevelopment plans currently being considered by the Philadelphia City Council are approved as they stand, the Council must be advised that both current and future residents will be placed at significant risk of physical and financial harm.”

Kenney asked the two men if they would be willing to review the information gleaned from the survey of residents and other water department work in Eastwick, and more detailed information from the developer about the project, when both are available. He said he would feel “a lot more comfortable”  if he was receiving information from these two “non-partisan” people.

However, Montalto and Nalbandian were not representing their universities, but were testifying as expert consultants paid for by the Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition.  PlanPhilly does not know if Kenney was aware of that.

Tuesday, much of the environmental arguments were made by Fred Stine of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, who gave testimony on behalf of 11 environmental agencies, including the Clean Air Council, Clean Water Action, Friends of the Heinz Refuge and the Philadelphia Parks Alliance.

Stine said that the flooding Eastwick experiences is due to inadequate infrastructure and improper land development within the floodplain. But the environmental concerns are not just about flooding in isolation, but “in the context of the myriad environmental hazards that burden the area disproportionate to other parts of the city.”

The Clearview Landfill and Folcroft Landfill are both Superfund sites and under investigation and remediation by federal agencies, Stine said.  Clearview sits in the floodplain of Darby Creek and their are concerns that during flooding, toxic substances are being carried in the water.

With existing flooding and other environmental concerns, Stine characterized further residential and airport development as a “fundamentally wrong direction.” Read the written testimony submitted to the committee here.

Cutler said Tuesday that the land that would be developed actually does not drain into the refuge, but into the Schuylkill River through a basin at Mingo Creek.

“Council heard from some advocates that support the concept of expanding the John Heinz wildlife refuge,” she said. “These advocates incorrectly asserted than an expansion of the refuge would alleviate flooding. Not only would an expansion of the refuge have no positive impact on flooding, the Federal Aviation Administration would simply not allow it. It is not safe for the communities surrounding the airport or the flying public to bring the refuge closer to the airport.”

Korman has talked to refuge officials and before council break had pledged to use native plants and make other accommodations for the benefit of John Heinz Refuge.

Cutler did not just address infrastructure and flooding. “In our view, the proposed housing project presents a significant opportunity to bring new residents into a community that has not benefited fro the same growth in population experienced in other parts of Philadelphia,” she said. “As important, the settlement would lead to city control of 93 acres of land that has been beyond the City’s control for nearly 50 years.”

Cutler also said, “… regardless of the outcome of any zoning ordinances related to Eastwick, this administration, my office and the Philadelphia Water Department are totally committed to working with the residents of Eastwick and you to address flooding concerns.”

Neukrug said it’s not his decision whether or not the Korman project goes forward, but it is his job to make sure that if it does, it will not make flooding worse. Because of the size of the proposed project, Korman would have to get approval from his department before it can get a building permit, he said. So no project that would make flooding worse will get a permit.

Eastwick Friends’ attorney Amy Laura Cahn, from the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, told the committee that  residents want their flooding problems corrected before there is any further development. “Eastwick needs a comprehensive solution,” she said. Flood maps must also be updated – something that will take the involvement of the federal government.

After that, the community does support development that includes housing of multiple types and open space, and it wants input in shaping that development.

Korman attorney Peter Kelsen was not at the hearing, but said late Wednesday morning that Korman still plans to build the project. “We have not received anything that would change our view that it would move forward,” he said. Kelsen said Korman wants to continue to work with the community, Johnson’s office, and other elected officials to “resolve issues of concern” and “advance the project.”

Korman is also concerned about flooding, Kelsen said.  “When we are engineering our site, we know we can better the current run off situation as it affects  the 35 acres,” he said. “We are committed to that, and believe we can make things better.” 

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