More public spaces, fewer gas stations: Changes coming to the Delaware River waterfront

The Cherry Street Pier's artwork is echoed on the neighboring Race Street Pier. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Cherry Street Pier's artwork is echoed on the neighboring Race Street Pier. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The city’s plan for the Delaware River waterfront has had its ups and downs. First, there was the PMC One Water Street fight, then the Squilla building-height debate, and most recently, the community uproar over Bart Blatstein’s Super Wawa.

But the new modifications to the Central Delaware zoning overlay, presented in a City Council bill and approved by the Planning Commission Tuesday afternoon, indicate that the city has learned from its mistakes. Here’s what the bill changed and why it matters.

Limiting street-level housing

Housing is currently counted as an “active use” under the overlay. Consequently, most developers have opted to pursue profitable residential uses, often in the form of single-family homes. That means that the new riverfront hosts more suburban-style blocks than planners intended, while other forms of active use like retail, restaurants, libraries, or exhibition spaces that could potentially attract pedestrian activity have gone underrepresented.

The new overlay aims to address that by limiting the percentage of ground-level housing that can front on Columbus and Delaware avenues and on roads designated as river access streets, according to Mason Austin, a city planner on the staff of the Philadelphia Planning Commission.   The revised code also places restrictions on gas stations, which will no longer be allowed anywhere in the overlay, except for industrial parcels.  The planners intend these changes to foster development that will draw more pedestrians to the waterfront.

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Adds criteria for public space

PMC Property Group’s One Water Street was one of the first projects zoned under the Central Delaware waterfront overlay. At the time, the soaring luxury apartment building made the most of its development bonuses — including a 24-foot height bonus for providing public space. But as the Inquirer’s architecture critic Inga Saffron pointed out, “If you visit the site, you might be hard-pressed to identify the ‘public open space’ that PMC created to satisfy the bonus requirement. Is it the planted berm in front of the building? The generous driveway? Or maybe the row of concrete benches along Columbus Boulevard? Whichever it is, it’s a pretty stingy contribution to the public realm.”

City planning officials realized it wasn’t enough to simply require public space. They had to specify that the developer create areas that explicitly welcomed the public with their design.

The overlay’s new requirements for designated public space add two critical things. First, the area needs to meet a minimum width and depth of 50 feet at its narrowest and shallowest points. Second, the area needs to be adjacent to a public street, river access street or trail — in other words, easily accessible to the actual public.

Redefines ‘frontage’

Bart Blatstein’s shuffle-and-switch on the Super Wawa proposal may have made it to the zoning board, but it didn’t fool the neighborhood — or the city. Blatstein previously skirted the overlay requirements by switching the gas station and convenience store locations, as well as by designating a small parcel along the edge of Columbus as a landscaping addition and claiming that the definition of “frontage” allowed his development to stay within the law.

The city’s zoning board hasn’t yet granted the special exemption it needs to continue, but the city is making sure no one else can pull anything like it. The new amendment reads: “A lot will be deemed to have frontage on a given street or watercourse if any portion of the lot is within 75 ft. of the given street or watercourse and there is no permanent structure on any parcels located entirely or partially within any area that separates the parcel from the given street or watercourse.” 

In other words, the rules now guard against landscaping or driveway buffers that exempt waterfront developers from waterfront zoning. 

Bonuses for public space, affordability, & stormwater management

Finally, the new overlay further encourages the creation of retail space, public space, mixed-income housing, and stormwater management amenities by adding height allowance bonuses. Incorporating any of these public benefits could earn a developer up to 156 feet of possible extra height, a 12-foot increase from the original 144. That’s countered slightly by the reduction of base-height limit from 100 feet to 84, for a total maximum height of 240 feet. Some developments may be eligible for an optional special review, which could grant additional exemption from building-height maximums and parking minimums.

The amended overlay code also specifies that Licensing and Inspection will not issue a zoning permit until the developer meets with the planning commission and the commission certifies that “all proposed facades and public spaces are in harmony with the intended character of the…overlay district.” The language of “in harmony with” — aside from conjuring flashbacks to middle-school choir rehearsal — indicates the planning commission’s commitment to not only the rules but the intention behind the Central Delaware overlay. 

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