Contrary to concerns, riverfront overlay stands until new overlay or new zoning code takes effect.

Thursday night’s Central Delaware Advisory Group meeting began with some panic over the overlay designed to keep Central Delaware Riverfront development in line with the city’s vision for the waterfront’s future.

Both new CDAG Chairman Matt Ruben and new First District City Councilman Mark Squilla said they had been told by city planners that the overlay would expire when the Philadelphia City Planning Commission adopts the Central Delaware Master Plan, a step the commission is expected to take in February.

Were this so, it would mean waterfront development would follow the base zoning in the existing zoning code. Developers would not need to build at least 50 feet away from the river. They wouldn’t have to send their projects to the planning commission for Plan of Development approval. And, depending on the base zoning and any other overlay, parking garages could be a main use on the east side of the highway, and “big box stores” wouldn’t be banned, either.

“Not having that overlay is going to undo the Waterfront Master Plan,” CDAG Member Dianne Mayer said. “People will be rushing in there, and putting in whatever they want.”

But that turns out not to be the case.

According to top planning and zoning officials contacted Friday by PlanPhilly, the passage of the Master Plan is in no way linked to the demise of the current zoning overlay.

“The current overlay will expire only when the new zoning code takes effect on 8/22/2012, or should a new overlay be passed under the current zoning code. Until then, the current overlay remains in force,” PCPC Executive Director Gary Jastrzab said in an email. “The PCPC act of adopting the Central Delaware Riverfront Plan will have no effect on the underlying zoning.” Jastrzab sent a similar email to city planning staffers.

By the end of Thursday’s meeting, CDAG members had reviewed the overlay ordinance, and, based on its wording, were pretty confident the overlay wouldn’t sunset with the adoption of the master plan. Still, they said they must contact top planning officials to make sure that was also their understanding, and that developers would be held to the overlay after the Master Plan is adopted.

Right now, there is a “reserved” section in the new zoning code, a placeholder for a new waterfront overlay. Zoning Code Commission Executive Director Eva Gladstein, planners and Central Delaware Waterfront Corporation Planning Manager Sarah Thorp are comparing the new zoning to the goals of the master plan, and will write an overlay that bridges the gap.

“We anticipate text for this section will be included in the ‘clean-up’ amendments submitted to Council in May,” Jastrzab said.  “Any new overlay language will have a full public vetting.”

The thing that CDAG and Squilla were so concerned about – the sunset of the current zoning overlay without a new zoning overlay – would happen only if City Council does not adopt a new Central Delaware Overlay before the new code takes effect, Gladstein said. In practical terms, that means prior to the mid-June recess, she said.

In that case, waterfront development would be governed by the underlying zoning contained in the new code.

Confusion on when the overlay would sunset may have arisen from an earlier draft of the Central Delaware Overlay.

The final version says the overlay expires “upon Council’s adoption of an Ordinance enacting land use and zoning controls that includes the boundaries of this District consistent with a Master Plan adopted by the Philadelphia City Planning

But a version from May 2009 says it expires “upon Council’s adoption of a Resolution recognizing the City Planning Commission’s adoption of a Master Plan for the Central Delaware River that includes the boundaries of the District.”

Had it been necessary, Squilla was willing to introduce legislation amending the overlay to keep it alive until new zoning replaced it.

CDAG members on Thursday discussed sending letters to the planning commission regarding the overlay expiration either challenging the interpretation of the overlay language or confirming that everyone was on the same page. But Ruben said by Friday afternoon it had become clear that everyone was now in agreement that the overlay wouldn’t expire with the passing of the master plan, so there was likely no need.

In other matters related to the overlay, Squilla told CDAG that landowners may need to be incentivized “to buy into the waterfront plan.” He talked with PlanPhilly about this in more detail in an earlier interview.

He also suggested the area covered by the overlay might have to be shortened in the beginning, and more land added to it “as we go forward.”

“There are questions and concerns from the administration and from other people about how this overlay will effect development of the waterfront,” he said.

“I’m a big advocate of the waterfront, and I think that somehow we need to incorporate the trail the whole way through the seven mile stretch. I think it’s a big part of it. But we might have to try to come up with different ways to make that happen,” he said.

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