New Waterfront Corporation Design Review Committee will evaluate development proposals for the Central Delaware

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation Thursday launched a committee that will review development proposals for the Central Delaware Waterfront and evaluate how well the proposals fit with the Central Delaware Master Plan. 

The Design Review Committee will consider not only concrete things like building height, waterfront setbacks and the presence or absence of active uses on the ground floor, but will ponder more subjective questions, for example: Has a developer who wants to build higher than the 100-foot limit the master plan calls for provided enough public amenities to warrant a taller building? The Committee will also evaluate building form and design.

It will answer developer’s questions about the master plan requirements and give suggestions on how a project can better fit within the Central Delaware – the area between I-95 and the river, from Oregon to Allegheny avenues – when projects are still in the design phase. It’s anticipated that the committee and developer will meet more than once about each project.

The new committee is chaired by Marilyn Jordan Taylor, who also chairs the DRWC’s planning committee and is dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. The Committee’s support or opposition to a project, and its reasons, will be presented to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission before the PCPC decides whether or not to approve a project’s plan of development.

Taylor said DRWC board members began to feel the need to take on this role of advising developers and advocating for or against projects when a flurry of waterfront development proposals began going before the planning commission. 

“We have a responsibility to stand up and be an on-going advocate for the plan,” she said. “We were not carrying forward with our full responsibility if we just said, ‘here’s the plan. And that’s enough.’”

Taylor talks about the reasons for and role of the new Design Review Committee

Taylor said that sometimes, a project may not meet the terms of the Central Delaware Master Plan to the letter, but yet very much be a good fit with the overall goals. Also, it’s always been known that things will happen that the plan never anticipated. In such instances, the Design Review Committee can provide guidance, she said.

The initial members of the Design Review Committee, in addition to Taylor, are architect Michael Hauptman, a partner at Brawer & Hauptman Architects, and Mario Zacharjasz, a founder and partner of PZS Architects and President of Puente Construction Enterprises, Inc.

The committee intends to invite, on a case-by-case basis, other “parties of interest who are qualified to participate in an advisory capacity in the design review process. These parties should be qualified design professionals and/or experienced real estate developers with a knowledge of design.”

Design Review Committee meetings will not be open to the public, as a rule. Taylor said that “informal discussions” work better that way. The DRWC is a non-profit, but also a quasi-city agency which manages the city’s waterfront land. It is subject to open meetings law. DRWC President Tom Corcoran said lawyers reviewed the proposal and determined that closed committee meetings are not in violation, since a quorum of the board will not be present. He also said that the committee’s work will be done via consensus – no votes will be taken.

In addition to reviewing private developer’s proposals, the Design Review Committee may also chose to review proposals for public land that requires approvals. Taylor and Corcoran said there may be some circumstances in which the public would be invited to Design Review Committee meetings.

While committee members may change in the future, some DRWC board members cannot sit on the committee: Members who are serving ex-officio as public officials or involved in the public approvals process are not eligible, to “avoid any potential conflicts of interest.” 

This excludes, among others, planning commission executive director Gary Jastrzab and deputy mayor and planning commission chairman Alan Greenberger.

Corcoran talks about the committee.

Corcoran and others from the DRWC have provided comment to the planning commission on previous projects, including Marina View Towers and a proposal for Pier 40. Corcoran does not think the existence of the committee would have changed the nature of the comments the DRWC made, generally. But “they would have been more formed, and detailed,” he said.  Corcoran said his background is not in design or architecture, and so he did not feel qualified to comment on those elements of the proposals.

No developer has to appear before the Design Review Committee, but DRWC expects that the planning commission and other entities aware of proposed projects in the Central Delaware will refer developers to the committee. The committee will also reach out to developers, and Taylor said she hopes developers will reach out directly, and see the discussion as a benefit.

Matt Ruben, chairman of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, said the creation of the Design Review Committee is an important step. “DRWC crafted the Master Plan for the Central Delaware. It’s essential that they continue to stand for its principles, especially now that those principles are under attack.  So I’m very glad to see they’ve formed a Design Review Committee, with Marilyn Jordan Taylor at the helm.”

Craig Schelter of the Development Workshop said the committee review “makes perfect sense” when any publically owned land is going to be developed, but he doesn’t know why any developer building on private land would go through the process.

He notes that the Trump tower site – which he notes is not represented by the Development Workshop – is shown on the Master Plan as a park. A developer who wants to build a structure on it is likely not going to find an acceptible compromise with the committee. The developer will have to go before the Planning Commission, and the yet-not-created city Civic Design Review process, he said.

Schelter also said that as far as he’s concerned, since there is not money on hand to fund the entire master plan, it remains an aspirational plan. 

“I’m going to watch and see,” Schelter said.

Regarding the closed nature of the committee proceedings, Ruben said, “It’s always best to err on the side of having meetings be public.” But he noted that the committee will be accountable to the DRWC board, which has public meetings, and will testify at Planning Commission meetings. “IT sounds like their positions and decisions will be fully available to the public.”

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