Developer offers Pier 40 to city. But does the city want it?

The developer hoping to build a 215-foot tall, 200-unit residential development on the land at the foot of Pier 40 would be happy to give the pier to the city.

“We’re willing to dedicate it, free of cost to the city,” said Ensemble Real Estate’s attorney Carl Primavera at the June Philadelphia City Planning Commission meeting, adding that it would be a great fishing spot. “We have no need for it … it’s something we’d love to talk about.”

But would the donation of Pier 40 be a helpful asset toward the goal of providing new development and green space along the waterfront?

“You can’t put anything on it,” Ensemble’s Louis Cicalese told commissioners. “It’s not supportable of anything. Not low-rise development, not a bike path,” he said. To put anything on the pier, Cicalese said, it would have to be rebuilt, at a cost of about $7 million. To remove the dilapidated pier and leave the piles in place for fish habitat or wetland would cost about $3 million.

Sarah Thorp, planning director for the quasi-city Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, which oversaw the development of the city’s waterfront master plan, said having Pier 40 would not enhance the waterfront plan.

Public open space is recommended every half-mile along the Central Delaware, from Allegheny to Oregon avenues. “We would not recommend that this necessarily be one of the open spaces developed,” she said, because it is not at one of the key streets identified as the best east-west corridors to connect city neighborhoods with the waterfront.

Thorp said she has concerns about the height of the building, which is double the 100-foot limit established for the Central Delaware. The limit isn’t just for aesthetics, or to ensure the scale of the waterfront matches that of adjacent neighborhoods, Thorp said. The waterfront can currently absorb only about 100 new residences per year, she said. Keeping building heights below 100 feet spreads development out over the entire waterfront, Thorp said.

The commission has the ability to grant height limit exceptions, but commissioners indicated they were not likely to allow double the height without significant public benefit in exchange.

Commissioner Nancy Rogo-Trainer didn’t think the willingness to dedicate the pier went far enough in that direction.

“To me, the biggest sort of glaring thing is the idea of building this big apartment building, and then leaving the pier fallow,” she said. Later she added: “If you are leaving the pier derelict, why would we say you can go above and beyond the height limits,” she said. “If you are asking for twice the height, there is going to have to be something given back to the public. In this case, it’s something obvious.”

Trainer asked how much it cost to turn Race Street Pier into a park. Greenberger, who also sits on the DRWC board, told her $8 million. That pier was structurally sound, however.

Thorp suggested that the developer could be asked to help develop near-by or other public space that is called for in the master plan.

Commissioner Nilda Ruiz asked if the developer would consider public art, or something else to at least make the pier look better.

“We would be open to doing anything that is an improved site,” Cicalese said. “We would work with the city, the state, the federal government to do whatever would be best to make that pier usable for the public … it not only would be an amenity to the public, but it would be a very big amenity for the apartment itself.”

Even aside from cost and effort, developing the pier would not be easy, the development team acknowledged, because state and federal permits would be required.

The proposed development would sit on land SugarHouse is currently using for parking. It would be 20-floors tall and have 240 parking spaces in a garage on lower floors. There would also be 1,500 square feet of lower-level retail, architect Bob Keppel of Cope Linder Architects said.

The placement of the building would also allow for an open “visual corridor” from Delaware Avenue, Keppel said. “You could look through and see the Delaware River and New Jersey.”

The plan includes public access to the water. In response to questions from Commission Vice Chairman Joe Syrnick, Keppel explained the public would be able to walk on sidewalks through landscaping along the driveway and straight back to a landscaped area at the waterfront. Syrnick asked if in the future Pier 40 was some sort of public space, could there be access to it from the landscaped area? Keppel said yes, but in the near term, the plan is calling for a fence and a gate to keep people away from the pier.

This presentation was for information only, but the team said they hope to seek plan of development approval from the commission next month.

Matt Ruben, chairman of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group and president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, advised commissioners to proceed carefully and thoughtfully. He said they have a choice to make about whether developers must stay below the 100 foot height limit, or whether, with enough public amenities thrown into a plan, they can get an exception.

Ruben said the pier offer was not enough of a public amenity to merit the height sought here, considering the cost and difficulty that would be involved in developing it. He echoed Thorp’s comments that an Ensemble contribution to another public improvement might be a good trade.

Greenberger said the height of this development might not be directly comparable to another proposal on a different site. It is located between even taller existing residential towers and a casino, he noted. And while it has a Penn Street address, it’s barely on any street at all.

Still, he advised the development team to come back with plans that indicate a clear path for the pier’s future, whether that future includes any kind of development or not.

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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