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Campaigning for greener, wider waterfront experience

Oct. 2

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

There’s a new organization lobbying for a green setback along the entire length of both the city’s rivers.

The Coalition for Philadelphia’s Riverfronts – an umbrella organization of 38 civic organizations, business groups, recreation proponents and river advocates – will officially launch its campaign Tuesday, on the Schuylkill River adjacent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“We’re calling for a continuous, connected, high-quality greenway on both rivers,” said organizer Rachel Vassar, the Philadelphia outreach coordinator at PennFuture, a CPR member. “We are asking for the city to put the greenway on the map, to make it part of the official city plan, so that with future development, a greenway can be developed.”  Some parts of both rivers already have greenways and/or trails, and work is underway or planned in other places. CPR’s hope is to not only physically connect trails, but to organize those responsible into a group that can work together.

CPR – whose current members include the Delaware River City Corporation, the Manayunk Development Corporation, neighborhood groups including the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, The Bicycle Coalition and the Philadelphia Anglers Club – wants riverfront trails, but that’s not all. “We want a setback that is sufficient for a multi-use trail and the environmental benefits that come from having green space between the river and development,” Vassar said.

Those benefits include creation of habitat for animals and birds and more space where rain water can be absorbed, rather than overwhelming the city’s sewer system, she said. CPR has not proposed a specific width.

Topics at Tuesday’s launch will include economic, recreational and health benefits of a greenway and  how it will support the city’s plan to become the greenest city in the nation, Vassar said.

Vassar has been talking to city council members already. The goal: “Sometime between now and summer recess, we’d like to see legislation that is supportive of having a city-wide greenway,” she said. There is no timeline yet for the development of that greenway, which will take much longer, she said.

Not everyone thinks lining the entire length of both rivers with a greenway can or should be done.

Craig Schelter, executive director of the Development Workshop and a former executive director of the city planning commission, said that before any legislation is drafted, a study should be done examining the costs of building and maintaining the trail – including compensating private landowners if their land is taken for the greenway.

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These are issues that Schelter’s group raised when City Councilman Frank DiCicco introduced an overlay zoning ordinance calling for a setback on the Central Delaware River. That ordinance, which requires a setback of 100 feet or 10 percent of a property, passed in June. “I’m still totally from Missouri on whether 100 feet is necessary,” Schelter said. Other places – even in Philadelphia – have made trails work in less space. “Look at portions of Schuylkill River Park. It’s as narrow as 30 feet in some places,” he said.

Schelter said some heavily industrial places along the city’s rivers aren’t scenic enough to warrant a public trail, and that public access could be dangerous.  In Northeast Philadelphia, where development of the Delaware Riverfront Greenway Plan is underway, a trail follows the Delaware River, but then juts westward along State Road in places that are industrial, he said. That Greenway is being created by the Delaware River City Corp., a member of CPR.

Schelter also said that a greenway could have negative economic impact in some places. For example, if a greenway prevented the airport from expanding it’s third runway, or increased the time to get permits. “Then we would ask, ‘Did we shoot ourselves in the foot?’” he said.

Vassar said she anticipates some opposition to the CPR proposal, in whole or in part.

“I expect that there will be groups that will not necessarily see all of the benefits, or won’t see them as clearly as we do,” she said. “There was opposition with the (Central Delaware) overlay, but I think there was overwhelmingly support, though.”

Vassar said her talks with city council members  and/or their aides have been “generally supportive.”  No one has volunteered to submit legislation yet, she said. All have been invited to Tuesday’s launch.

Chris Creelman, chief of staff for Sixth District Councilwoman Joan L. Krajewski, has talked with Vassar. He said it would be a mistake to try for a uniform trail and setback along both rivers, throughout the whole city, because each district’s needs and development types are just too different.  Some districts’ riverfronts have lots of publicly owned space. Some are mostly industrial, and others – like the Sixth District – have residential development, or planned residential development. “I don’t know if something uniform is conducive to getting development going,” he said.

The Delaware Riverfront Greenway runs through Krajewski’s district, and she sponsored the Delaware Riverfront Conservation District legislation that makes room for a recreational trail there. The District’s boundaries are 50-feet wide. It requires new development to include a recreational path, but does not say how big the path must be. And it says that development in the district must be done in a way to maximize the preservation of open space “where possible.”

“Our setback works for us,” Creelman said.  “What’s good for the goose may not be good for the gander.”

DiCicco’s chief of staff, Brian Abernathy, said in an email that while the portion of the Delaware DiCicco represents already “enjoys a required setback … we’d be happy to consider the idea and discuss it with our colleagues.” Abernathy said he encouraged CPR to talk to other council members with riverfront districts.

City Council President Anna Verna’s district includes portions of both the Delaware and Schuylkill riverfronts. Verna spokesman Tony Radwanski said that to his knowledge, Verna is not familiar with the CPR proposal. He hoped CPR would talk to her about it, and said she would gauge the interest of the neighborhoods she represents before making any decisions.

Radwanski himself would like to hear from CPR. He is President of the Board of Glen Foerd on the Delaware, a historic site on Grant Avenue. Glen Foerd is already working with the Delaware River City Corp. on the Greenway trail, Radwanski said, and he’d like to know more about CPR.

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Vassar hopes lots of Philadelphians will come to the launch, which also will include kayaking. Currently, there is not a way for individuals to join CPR. Vassar said that will likely change in the future. In the meanwhile, she is hoping that interested individuals will convince their community groups and organizations to join.

Contact the reporter at kelliespatrick@gmail.com

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