Cry me a River: Central Delaware advocates debate changes to waterfront zoning, height limits

Thursday night, the Central Delaware Advocacy Group (CDAG) gathered to hear Mark Squilla explain his  proposal to allow the construction of  significantly taller buildings along the waterfront.

In the Independence Seaport Museum’s cavernous auditorium, neighborhood activists peppered the councilman and Philadelphia’s Director of Development and Planning Anne Fadullon with pointed questions about the bill that proved controversial enough for the councilman to put it on hold before the summer recess. That defensiveness over the Central Delaware Zoning Overlay has deep roots. There are few corners of the zoning code that have such deeply imbedded public support. The overlay is the result of a massive community planning process—over 200 meetings were held—for the long-neglected riverfront that forms the city’s eastern boundary. A master plan was crafted as a result of all that community input, which led to the zoning overlay that set special design specifications for development along the Delaware River between South Philly and Port Richmond.

Near the beginning of Thursday night’s meeting, Squilla explained why he introduced a bill that would greatly increase the allowable height of real estate developments along the river.  

“My idea was a to add [height] bonuses to the overlay to encourage the intent of the masterplan,” said Squilla. “This is an opportunity to improve the overlay, not to give developers everything they want.”

The bill started as an attempt to “spot zone” (rezone a single parcel or group of parcels to allow a specific proposal to be built without a zoning variance or special exception) on behalf of  K4 Associates, a Maryland-based developer that wants to build a massive, ten-story high-rise condominium complex on the site of Sheet Metal Workers union hall in Pennsport.

The original legislation, drafted by the developer’s zoning lawyer  would have allowed for serious height bonuses just at the union hall site, but the Planning Commission fought to have the bill encompass the entire, seven-mile long overlay.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the commission is a proponent of the bill but, generally, its policy is to oppose narrow spot zoning. Even if the commission doesn’t like a zoning change, they believe it is better to apply it broadly than to encourage a proliferation of spot zoning bills that would ultimately, they fear, undermine citywide planning efforts.

The Planning Commission’s overlay-wide bill still provoked controversy because it so clearly was a result of K4’s design—exactly the kind of grandiose development that the overlay is meant to discourage.

Historically, community groups saw rampant speculation on the riverfront, as developers convinced city council to spot zone their parcels to allow for previously forbidden mega-projects—thus increasing the land’s value—and then subsequently selling the still-undeveloped lots to another developer. Waterfront properties were constantly being shuffled from one owner to another, but nothing ever seemed to get built.

Many community members in attendance on Thursday night were still skeptical of Squilla’s bill and of the K4 Development itself. But CDAG Chair Matt Ruben*, who sat with Squilla on stage, agreed the overlay could be improved upon, and said they would engage with the councilman on that basis.

“This started out as an attempt at spot zoning, but it became something else when Planning tried to amend the whole overlay instead,” said Ruben. “CDAG is not willing to support amendments that would just make a bad bill slightly better. This can’t be about one development.”

Fadullon agreed that there are a variety of ways the overlay can be improved.The city’s planning and development director noted that developers could currently build a wall of new buildings across many of the larger parcels on the waterfront, thereby obstructing public views of the river. She would like to do something about that in the forthcoming discussions.

“The city, the state, and philanthropic institutions are about to spend a lot of money to finally connect the city and the waterfront,” said Fadullon, alluding to a $250 million project to cap a section of I-95. “We don’t then want to see a bunch of development on the waterfront that creates a wall to the public.”

Squilla said he has already pulled back some aspects of his original bill, such as the bonuses for storm water management and connector streets—both provisions that CDAG criticized as giving developers height bonuses for design features  they are required to provide anyway.

The councilman ended the meeting by outlining the path forward. Next Thursday, CDAG, Squilla, the Planning Commission, and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation will meet to discuss amending the bill. They hope to meet every two weeks until they come up with a plan that can be agreed upon by most stakeholders. Squilla also said he liked the idea of revisiting the overlay every two years with all the stakeholders, to consider updates to address changing conditions.

The exact content of the bill will be hammered out in the weeks ahead, but Squilla said there is no chance that the bill will simply die.

“CDAG will resist any effort to rush it but I also know the councilman doesn’t want this thing hanging around,” concluded Ruben. “At some point, even if CDAG is dead set against this, he would probably go forward rather than have it drag on forever.”

*Full Disclosure: Matt Ruben serves on the PlanPhilly Advisory Board

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