Just a piece of work? City Planning still deciding whether to endorse adoption of entire waterfront plan

Philadelphia City Planning Commission staff is deciding whether to recommend that commissioners adopt just a portion of the long-range plan for improving the Central Delaware Waterfront – a possibility that has alarmed some waterfront stakeholders.

Under one option, PCPC staff would recommend at this Tuesday’s special planning commission session that commissioners adopt the mid-section of the Central Delaware Waterfront Master Plan, from Mifflin Street in the south to Montgomery Avenue in the north. The recommendation would be to accept rather than adopt the other sections of the plan, which cover Mifflin Street to Oregon Avenue in the south, and Montgomery Avenue to Allegheny Avenue in the north.

“We are aware that the planning commission is considering different options in terms of what action they should recommend for the master plan,” said Delaware River Waterfront Corporation President Tom Corcoran. (The DRWC is the quasi-city agency that has overseen the development of the master plan and manages the city’s waterfront property). “I really can’t speculate on what they are going to end up doing. I really don’t know,” Corcoran said.

“Our position … is taken right from resolution we passed at our board meeting in October. DRWC encourages the city planning commission to adopt the master plan. That is the position of our board and our organization.” Corcoran said he and DRWC Planning Director Sarah Thorp will present the master plan to commissioners Tuesday and request the board fully adopt the document.

Read Ashley Hahn’s Eyes on the Street commentary

As of Friday morning, it remained uncertain what the recommendation would be, according to an email from Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger. Greenberger is both chairman of the planning commission and a DRWC board member who has worked on the master plan.

“We have NOT made a final decision about our recommendations to the Planning Commission for adoption/acceptance of the Central Delaware” Master Plan, he said in the email.

That begs a question. What is the difference between adopted and accepted plans?

PCPC Development Planning Division Director Bill Kramer said, “Adopting means the planning commission is going to be necessarily guided by all the provisions. If they accept it, it means we use it as a guide, and do what we want to do.”

But then again, Kramer added, “there are schools of thought that there is not a lot of difference.”

Planning Commission Executive Director Gary Jastrzab could not be reached for comment Thursday or Friday.

Many interviewed for this article said they weren’t positive of the legal difference, but their gut feeling and observation of the planning commission’s common practice told them adoption creates a rule that must be followed while acceptance calls for a more flexible guideline.

First District Councilman Mark Squilla, who represents most of the area within the Central Delaware Waterfront, is among them.  He said Friday afternoon that he felt frustrated that he was not included in discussions that could impact his district. “The decision is being made, obviously, without me,” he said.

Squilla said he would like to understand what is happening and what the terms mean before the PCPC vote occurs Tuesday.  He wondered aloud how not adopting, but accepting, a portion of the master plan could impact future zoning decisions. “I need more clarity as to what this means,” he said. “I’m not saying I cannot be sold on it, or that I can be. But I would like to have an explanation.”

Squilla said he would have liked the opportunity to send commissioners a letter in favor or opposed to the recommendation, and was going to seek answers from planners Friday.

Matt Ruben, chairman of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, said he did not know what the technical difference  between adoption and acceptance was. “But I do know that adoption is a stronger term that the planning commission has used. Making a specific decision not to adopt but only to accept part of the plan would send a message that for some reason, they would not be as actively embracing the plan or those aspects of the plan,” he said.

CDAG is made up of representatives from waterfront civic and other organizations, and its mission is to advocate for the community’s goals for waterfront revitalization.

Dianne Mayer, who lives in Pennsport (a neighborhood that would be part of the “accepted” southern portion, if that recommendation is made) and represents Neighbors Allied for the Best Riverfront on CDAG, said she has been hearing about the possible recommendation, and was very concerned about it.  She doesn’t understand why planning would consider carving out the area south of Mifflin when just Thursday, the DRWC announced it will acquire several piers and the area surrounding them behind the Walmart, just a bit north of Mifflin.

“Why stop there (at Mifflin) when they have just made this progress?” she asked.

CDAG will “absolutely and unequivocally be urging the planning commission to adopt the whole document” on Tuesday, Ruben said.

“We support the principles of the Civic Vision (the document that sums up the public’s waterfront wishes, based on years of public input sessions) and we support the Master Plan, which incorporates the spirit of the Civic Vision to a significant degree,” he said. “It has been worked on and vetted for years now, and we think the entire thing should be adopted by the Planning Commission and embraced by the city,” he said.

“There is no reason to adopt part of it and back away from another part of it.”

But one group that owns land in the northern section of the Central Delaware has been arguing there are good reasons to do just that.

According to the possible boundaries PlanPhilly has heard of, the northern portion of the plan that could be accepted instead of adopted includes properties owned by Jim Anderson and several others. At the October Delaware River Waterfront Corporation meeting at which the master plan was adopted by the DRWC executive board, representatives of the landowners asked the DRWC to exempt their clients’ 57.25 acres from the Master Plan – an action the DRWC did not take.

Craig Schelter, executive director of the Development Workshop and a former executive director of the city planning commission, said at the October meeting that the land owners applaud the parts of the master plan that focus on public property improvements, but were concerned, among other things, that the call for a public trail, street extension and parkland throughout the entire waterfront amounts to a taking of their property without compensation.  DRWC officials and board members have said this is not the case.  See more of this discussion in previous coverage here.
Like those who support the entire master plan as it is, Schelter thinks that an accepted plan has fewer teeth than an adopted plan.
If the recommendation turns out to be accepting the northern portion and the southern portion, “I’m delighted,” he said. Schelter, who was planning director for 15 years, sees it like this: “If they adopt something, it can be a major consideration for any zoning changes that get enacted.” But if they accept it, while the document can be used going forward, “there is no basis for it officially being part of the comprehensive plan, from which they can make lots of zoning decisions.”
But Schelter isn’t ready to relax. While there been no final decision made on the adopt vs. accept recommendation, “I don’t know how they are going to define accepted,” he said.  Tuesday is “literally going to be one of those presentations where I’m listening very closely to each word in terms of what it means, going forward.”

The Central Delaware Master Plan was drafted after a years-long public process that was designed to determine citizens’ goals for the waterfront.  The process was initiated by then-Mayor John Street and former First District Councilman Frank DiCicco. Mayor Michael Nutter continued to support it, and has said the effort would lead to the Central Delaware becoming the best waterfront in the country.

Street hired PennPraxis, the practical arm of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, to run the public input process that culminated in the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware, a document from which the Master Plan draws heavily.

PennPraxis Executive Director Harris Steinberg said while he’s not a legal expert, to him, adopting a document into the official city plan gives it “the force of law moving forward, demonstrating the city’s intent to extend streets or make trails, or whatever the plan calls for.” Documents that are accepted “have less teeth, I’m assuming,” he said.

Still, Steinberg said he would be satisfied if the commission adopted just the center portion of the Central Delaware Master Plan next week, provided they work toward adoption of the entire plan and use the north and south portions as guidelines for development decisions in the meantime.

Accepting the northern and southern portions “may mean that they just need more time to work with (land) owners in those areas to kind of smooth the way for eventual adoption,” he said.

What makes Steinberg fairly comfortable about adopting the central portion now and the northern and southern portions in the future is “that the adoption portion covers the portion of the Central Delaware most likely to be developed in the next 10 to 20 years,” he said.

Both the current Central Delaware Zoning Overlay and its replacement, still in development, require a special planning commission review of any development projects within the Central Delaware. Steinberg says he expects the PCPC will use the accepted portions of the Master Plan to guide its decisions in the north and south – and that the Central Delaware Advocacy Group will hold them accountable for doing so.

In fall 2010, after the main ideas in the master plan were released by DRWC, some residents in the northern and southern sections of the Central Delaware said they were disheartened that there weren’t more details for future goals in their neighborhoods.

Explanations from the Master Plan team that more details were worked out for the central portion because more land there was already in public hands and so change could more readily occur there did not make them feel better. DRWC held special meetings on the north and south end plans, and in the end, CDAG representatives from those communities embraced the master plan.

Ruben, the CDAG chairman, said Friday that “anyone who says we shouldn’t embrace this plan in the far north and south because change won’t come there until later is misunderstanding the whole purpose and design of the plan,” he said. “The plan is specifically looking out over years and decades,” he said, and provides the rules for change when and if it comes.

Port Richmond resident and CDAG member Laura Lanza said she’s eager to learn more about what the recommendation will be and what it means, but accepting rather than adopting the northern portion could again raise bad feelings among her neighbors.

The north end has “large, large tracts of land that (currently) have the least restrictive uses,” she said. “It’s very important to uphold the Civic Vision in places where so many good things could happen, but so many detrimental things could also happen.”

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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