City to withhold One Water Street’s certificate of occupancy over affordable housing units

The Department of Licenses and Inspections plans to withhold a certificate of occupancy for One Water Street unless its developers deliver the 25 affordable housing units that were a condition for receiving a height bonus.

On Friday, Inga Saffron reported that PMC Property Group was looking to get out of supplying any sub-market rate units in the nearly-completed project. In exchange for committing to include reduced-rate units, the developers received a density bonus to build 48-feet taller than the base zoning permitted.

L&I Commissioner Dave Perri clarified on Monday that his agency would not allow PMC to renege on that commitment.

“We want to treat this project like we would treat any other project,” he said, “In order to get your certificate of occupancy, you have to build in accordance with approved zoning. And in order to get the certificate of occupancy they have to file whatever zoning permit was issued for the property. In this case the zoning permit includes the 25 affordable units, so if those are no longer included, they’ll have to file a new permit.”

In other words: no units, no certificate. The developers could submit a new zoning permit to change the zoning or claim other bonuses, Perri explained, but PMC would have to go through the entire process again.

“We’re very happy that the city is not going to grant a certificate of occupancy until this is resolved because that’s the only real leverage the city has in a situation like this,” said Matt Ruben, chair of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group (CDAG), a community-based coalition that supports the principles and goals in the Master Plan for the Central Delaware.*

Ruben said PMC and the city are currently exploring other amenities the developer could fund that would add up to 48 feet of height bonus.

“Personally, I think affordable housing is incredibly important, but no one is required to include affordable housing, and if they can supply other bonuses that equal the same amount of height, CDAG would be happy to support a bonus swap as long as it’s an equal amount of amenities,” Ruben said, “What’s important to us is protecting the integrity of the code.”

The Central Delaware Overlay, passed in 2013, limits building height to 100 feet, but establishes a bonus system whereby developers can build up to an additional 144 feet in exchange for including public amenities like affordable housing units, building extra retail space, meeting LEED energy efficiency standards, funding public space or public art, or constructing segments of the waterfront trail. The overlay is in service of the Master Plan for the Central Delaware, adopted by the city in 2013.

One Water Street is the first building to be constructed since the passage of the Overlay and was seen as evidence that the waterfront zoning was workable. PMC opted to use the height bonus for affordable housing to unlock an additional 48 feet of height, but they could cobble together other amenities to access the same bonus.

Saffron’s column mentioned public art, and Ruben said ground-floor retail is also under discussion. Adding retail to the project would be an interesting development since PMC was excused from requiring retail—one of the Overlay’s requirements—at the time the project was proposed on the grounds that the market for riverfront retail was still too weak.

PMC’s Jonathan Stavin told Philly Mag last year that the company was already considering adding retail and public art to the development in response to community concerns.

Perri said he’s committed to policing the terms of the bonus system, but said some of the amenities are easier for L&I to verify than others.

“The easiest are physical requirements for a property,” he said, “Building trail segments is straightforward, public art is straightforward. But when it comes to other types of commitments, they’re going to be a challenge. We’re just now getting into that discussion and there may need to be some statutory changes to make the enforcement process more straightforward.”

PlanPhilly’s request for comment from PMC was not returned on Monday.

*Disclosure: Ruben serves on PlanPhilly’s advisory committee.

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