Planning Commission adopts Central Delaware Master Plan

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission unanimously adopted the Master Plan for the Central Delaware Waterfront in its entirety, on Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s an ambitious plan,” said Commission Vice Chairman Joe Syrnick before the vote. “It’s not perfect, but this area has languished for far too long, and it needs a road map for moving forward.”

The action was a great relief to advocates for the master plan – which aims to reunite the city and the waterfront with a system of linked parks and extended city streets – and the quasi-city agency that oversaw its development.

As recently as Saturday, top planning staff was still in discussion over whether to recommend that the commission adopt the full plan or accept portions on the northern and southern end. See previous coverage here and here.

Because it was adopted, the Central Delware Plan is now part of the city’s comprehensive plan. It must be considered by any city governing body – such as City Council or the Zoning Board of Adjustment –  when making a waterfront decision. Had the plan been accepted instead, consideration would have been optional.

“We’re thrilled,” said Matt Ruben, chairman of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, which is comprised of representatives from waterfront civic and other organizations and advocates for the vision the public expressed for the central Delaware during years of public input sessions.

CDAG and other fans of the plan say it will re-tie the city to the waterfront, create new recreational and green space and spur economic growth. Queen Village Neighbors Association President Jeff Hornstein told commissioners that his is one of the communities most cut-off from the waterfront by the creation of I-95. “We see the plan as a remedy,” he said.

Sarah Thorp, director of planning at the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation – the agency that put together the master plan – said the plan’s adoption will make it easier to raise money to make plan projects happen. “DRWC has already raised millions of dollars to implement public projects and will continue to do so in order to encourage and leverage private development on the waterfront,” she said. “The fact that the City has adopted the master plan as an official part of the comprehensive plan now makes it easier for the City, DRWC, and other partner organizations to raise money from various public and private sources, as many of them require that projects be a part of an official plan for grant funding.”

The Central Delaware Waterfront Master Plan was years in the making. At the urging of former First District Councilman Frank DiCicco, former Mayor John Street hired PennPraxis, the practical arm of Penn School of Design, to determine what Philadelphians wanted for the riverfront. Thousands of residents participated in a series of events to gauge that interest, and the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware was created.

Current Mayor Michael Nutter embraced the waterfront planning effort. He also dissolved the Penn’s Landing Corporation, the quasi-city agency that managed the city’s waterfront, and replaced it with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. DRWC and a team of consultants continued holding public meetings and using input, research and the civic vision, drafted the master plan. The DRWC board adopted the plan in October in a resolution urging the Planning Commission to do the same.

Main tenets of the plan include reconnecting city neighborhoods to the waterfront by fostering connections along key streets that generally end in a public space. The series of public spaces, occuring about every half-mile, are linked to each other with a multi-purpose trail. The plan calls for mixed use development, including residential, commercial and industrial. View corridors to the water are preserved, and buildings are generally low- and mid-rise in illustrations that accompany the plan. The street grid is extended to the waterfront.

A key concept: Starting development on land already within city control, including the Festival Pier site at the foot of Spring Garden Street and the Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing, will spur private development.

Throughout the entire process, land owners and land owner representatives have been critical of parts of the plan. They say it is unfair for the city to impose conditions on their properties when market conditions are uncertain. They believe public access can cause liability issues. And they believe extending the street grid and calling for parklands without mentioning compensation amounts to a taking of land.

Some of them were present at Tuesday’s meeting.

Attorney Neil Sklaroff, representing Jim Anderson and others who own property on the former Cramp Shipyard site, said his client has asked for his properties to be removed from the plan. The plan would “have a disastrous effect” on the properties because it calls for two public parks and public access “without mention of compensation.”

DRWC was created by order of the mayor to manage the city’s waterfront and tasked by Mayor Michael Nutter with developing the master plan. But Sklaroff said it wasn’t really a part of the city (a point commission chairman Alan Greenberger disagreed with), and so it couldn’t write part of the comprehensive plan. He urged the commission to treat the plan in the same way it approaches plans from civic associations. In other words, to accept rather than adopt it.

“The plan would condition the opportunity for private development upon public improvements that may not be put in place for 25 years,” said Craig Schelter, a former city planning executive director, speaking for the Development Workshop. See a written copy of Schelter’s testimony here.

Schelter actually likes the goals established for the publicly owned parcels, but said the plan establishes unrealistic expectations for their development. Later in its agenda, the commission received information on the city’s capital budget plan. Schelter said at the current proposed level of city capital funding for the waterfront, it would take 300 years to realize the plan, based on DRWC’s own cost estimates. “Seeing how little was put in, this plan puts all the other privately owned properties in limbo,” he said. “They are not funding it at a high enough level to really  make things happen. At that point, it’s just irresponsible.”

Commissioner Nancy Rogo-Trainer pointed out that public investment often pairs with larger grants and other funding.

Schelter said that “given the lack of financial resources and physical obstacles of privately owned land, there is no urgency to include properties at the upper and lower areas of the plan at this time.”

It was these very parts of the plan – from Mifflin Street south to Oregon Avenue and from Montgomery Avenue north to Allegheny Avenue – that Planning Commission Chairman and Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger and PCPC Executive Director Gary Jastrzab considered recommending for commission acceptance rather than adoption.

“We wrestled with this a great deal,” Greenberger said after the meeting. “Our concern about it in the end was if we start accepting versus adopting .. .when do we stop doing it? What’s to stop somebody else from organizing a set of smart, good lawyers, and saying, ‘You accepted that, why wouldn’t you accept this?’ And there’s no end to that discussion.”

Greenberger and Jastrzab both said the plan was flexible enough to accomodate changing land uses, and pointed out the master plan, as part of the comprehensive plan, is land use policy, not law.

Greenberger on the decision to recommend master plan adoption

Zoning is law, Greenberger said, and there could be proposed uses – especially in the near term –  that meet zoning requirements, would be welcome on the waterfront, and would not allow for the implementation of the master plan. Shipping facilities that require river access do not provide a safe place for a waterfront trail, he said in example.

“Policy intentions are meant to span long period of time,” said Greenberger. “We’re not saying we know what’s going to happen on a particular site, particulary a given private site, over the next couple of years. We don’t.”  But “that doesn’t change the need or the interest in having a plan. If you think otherwise, than you shouldn’t be making plans for more than a few years at a time, which is not what planning is supposed to be about. “

Ed Kirlin, from Pennsport Civic Association – one of the organizations represented on CDAG – said that community support for the plan was not unanimous.  Pennsport President James Moylan wrote a letter that was read into the record asking the commission to table action because DRWC was not transparent enough in its planning. Moylan wrote that  the recent acquisition of land and piers behind Walmart for a waterfront trail and wetlands park was a good example, because there was no community discussion. But past president Tom Otto wrote a letter in support of the grant that helped purchase the property, and he and other Pennsport representatives, including some listed as board members on the letter, have publically expressed their support of the master plan.

Tuesday’s master plan presentations

Property owner Gianni Pignetti said he never knew his property was part of the master plan until he saw a map on PlanPhilly, and he was angry that he was not in on the discussions. He said he has lost other properties to condemnation, and did not want that to happen again. He said if his land is to become a park, he should be paid for it.

A few hours after the meeting, the DRWC’s Thorp said if the land in questions, which is underneath and around I-95 on Front, Richmond and Laurel Streets, is Pignetti’s, DRWC won’t acquire it, and apologizes for leaving him out of discussions.

“During the development of the master plan, DRWC and the master plan consultants assumed that the land under I-95 was owned by PennDOT and thus potentially available for public use as shown in the land use map included in the master plan report,” Thorp said.

“If this is not the case and the property is privately owned, DRWC apologizes for erroneously identifying this as public space. DRWC has no intention of acquiring this property if it is in fact privately owned.”

Public comment, commission comments and the vote

Ruben, who in addition to leading CDAG is president of Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, told commissioners to support the plan, and the Philadelphians who participated in the process that created it would have their backs.

He said the plan doesn’t call for immediate change in all areas, but  “says things might not change for a long time. If and when something happens, this is how it should happen. These are the rules of the road.” The fact that public funds might not become quickly available was also not a reason not to plan for the future, he said.

Jastrzab on the decision to recommend adoption.

Several commissioners comment on their support:

“As a planner and an architect, I know there is no such thing as a perfect plan. If you wait for a perfect plan, you’ll have no plan at all.,” said Commissioner Nancy Rogo-Trainer. A strength of this one is its ability to be phased in over time, she said. “I think it’s a very good plan.”

Commissioner Patrick Eiding has been critical of some elements of the plan in the past, and has questioned whether it would create enough jobs to bring people to live in future housing and play in future parks. But he gave his support Tuesday. “I will say publically that I would fight for the right of Anderson and anybody else who wants to develop and put people to work. That’s what I do for a living,” said Eiding, who is president of the Philadelphia Council of the AFL CIO.  “If  Mr. Anderson were here and said, ‘I have this to do instead of that,’ I would probably take a hard look at it. But the waterfront needs planning, he said.

Eiding said he felt assured that having the plan would not prevent people who want to develop the properties they own from doing so.

In his recommendation to the commission, Jastrzab said that the master plan is policy, and the implementation of that policy would take many more steps, including city council passing of the Central Delaware Zoning Overlay – which will augment underlying zoning with provisions specific to the six miles of the Central Delaware Waterfront – and other ordinances.

Originally, an information-only presentation on the overlay was set for the meeting, but it was removed from the agenda. “We’re still working on it,” Jastrzab said. Planning Commission Deputy Director Eva Gladstein and Thorp presented a draft version to CDAG earlier this year, and are expected to resume the discussion at this week’s CDAG meeting, set for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Penn Treaty Museum, across from Penn Treaty Park.

Both CDAG’s Ruben and the Development Workshop’s Schelter said they will make sure their constituents’ concerns are heard during those future steps.

Contact the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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