Planners present draft of new Delaware Riverfront zoning aimed at meshing future development with city’s goals

City and waterfront planners Thursday unveiled a draft of a document that will create zoning law aimed at requiring future Delaware River development to line up with the city’s waterfront goals.

“The Central Delaware Riverfront Overlay District is intended to encourage and renew the connection of the city’s residents and visitors with the Central Delaware Riverfront and to promote the development of walkable mixed-use neighborhoods …” says the introduction of the document. An overview of that work was presented to the Central Delaware Advocacy Group.

The draft bans development that would block the future extension of six “riverview streets” to the riverfront. It requires “active uses” on most of the ground floor of any building facing a large portion of Delaware Avenue, the river, or any of the 11 riverview streets. There is no outright ban on parking lots adjacent to Delaware Avenue, but the proposed rules limiting a “front yard” to 25 feet –  including the sidewalk – essentially amount to a ban.

The draft does not prohibit big-box stores, but it would require that they look less like a single huge building, and more like a group of smaller buildings.

Planning Commission Deputy Executive Director Eva Gladstein, who oversaw the development of the new zoning code, presented the overlay with new zoning code program manager Natalie Sheih and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation’s Planning Director, Sarah Thorp, and planner Karen Thompson.

The DRWC is the quasi-city agency that oversaw the development of the city’s Central Delaware Waterfront Master Plan, which the planning commission is expected to adopt at an upcoming meeting. CDAG, a group of riverfront community representatives who heard about the draft overlay Thursday, advocates for the master plan, which, once accepted by planning, will become part of the city’s comprehensive plan.

The final version of the waterfront overlay must be reviewed by the planning commission, then adopted by city council as an amendment to the city’s new zoning code. The new code, passed by council late last year, has a placeholder for the new overlay.  Gladstein hopes to get the final version to city council in May, so that the overlay is in place when the code goes into effect.

Extending the street grid is a key goal of the Central Delaware Master Plan. Under the proposed ordinance, no one could build a permanent structure that would block the future extension of Dickinson Street, Washington Avenue, Germantown Avenue, Columbia Avenue, Cumberland Street and Lehigh Avenue.

“Even if their lot extends over that area, they would not be able to put a building there,” Gladstein said

The portion of these and five other streets that are east of I-95 (Mifflin, Christian, Race, Spring Garden and Berks) would be designated “Riverview Streets,” a term analogous to the waterfront master plan’s “Connector Streets”.

The Master Plan calls for active, pedestrian-friendly uses on the ground floor of buildings. The ordinances says that at least 75 percent of the ground floor frontage facing any riverview street, Delaware Avenue between Washington and Spring Garden, or the Delaware River between Washington and Spring Garden, must consist of one of eight required uses: Retail sales; commercial services; eating and drinking establishments; lobbies of hotels live theaters or cinemas; libraries, museums, galleries or exhibition space; post offices, enclosed public space, enclosed gardens, public rooms, through-block connections or entrances to public transit stations or transit concourses.

Another key Master Plan provision calls for a 50-foot setback from the waterfront. That’s not in the overlay because base zoning in the new zoning code already calls for a 50-foot setback from all major watercourses, Gladstein said.

When Gladstein spoke of prohibiting building where a future street grid would go and requiring active uses, happy murmurs could be heard around the table.

Gladstein said that to keep things simple, there was no special 30 percent open space requirement, like the one in the Master Plan. The base zoning calls for 25 percent, she said, and the difference didn’t seem big enough to clutter the overlay. But lots of 5,000  square feet or more have a 40 percent requirement.

The 50-foot setback can be counted toward the open space total. CDAG representative Jeff Hornstein wanted to know if parking lots could also be counted as open space. Gladstein and Sheih said they weren’t sure, but would find an answer. Since going over the overlay took most of the meeting, they and the DRWC representatives will be back at next month’s CDAG meeting for a longer question-and-answer session. CDAG members will analyze the draft document, then compile questions and comments and send them to the planners.

Thorp said that the master plan also recognizes there will be some surface parking lots in the waterfront area.  No surface parking is great in theory, she said, but in reality, at least in the short term, surface lots are needed on Delaware Avenue.  Many people coming to waterfront attractions now and in the near-term will need to drive, Thorp said, because some parts of Delaware Avenue and Columbus Boulevard are are just not well-enough served by public transit.

The hope is that when development reaches a certain density, developers will build garages instead of lots. Until then, several draft overlay requirements work together to require lots to be hidden and/or broken up with landscaping.  Stand-alone lots will have to be buffered from the street, Thorp said, and those associated with a particular development “are probably going to have to be wrapped” with development.

Because the “front yard” limitations don’t allow enough space for a driveway along Delaware Avenue, and no curb cuts are allowed on the riverview streets, the solution for many properties will be a lot behind the buildings that is accessed from a driveway off Delaware Avenue that winds around to the lot. When asked after the meeting if the proposal would allow for a parking lot that could be visible from the waterfront trail, Thorp indicated those working on the document would go back and review to see if that was possible. But she and Gladstein said it would make no financial sense for any developer to put a parking lot between a development and the water, as the river views add so much value.

During the meeting, CDAG  member Rob Kettel questioned whether having more curb cuts on Delaware Avenue wouldn’t create a traffic issue. Thorp said that traffic can be better managed on Delaware than on smaller streets, and also noted that curb cuts are not banned on every east-west street, just the riverview streets.

Gladstein said the planners would also be discussing the proposal with the Development Workshop, a consortium of private developers and representatives of publicly traded real estate firms with properties or options on land on the Delaware River waterfront.

The text of the draft document can be viewed here. Note that changes are expected to be made prior to a public presentation of the overlay at a future planning commission meeting.

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