Pleased with adoption of master plan, waterfront advocacy group focuses on the next step: zoning

After taking a few moments to savor the  unanimous adoption of the Central Delaware Waterfront Master Plan earlier this week, the Central Delaware Advocacy Group got to work on the zoning overlay that would give the plan its legal teeth.

CDAG, an organization whose members represent a host of waterfront civic associations and non-profits, has been working on the new overlay with Eva Gladstein, the deputy executive director of the city planning commission who oversaw the creation of the new zoning code, and Sarah Thorp, planning director of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the quasi-city agency that developed the master plan. Gladstein and Thorp were scheduled to come to Thursday night’s meeting, but had a conflict, said CDAG Chairman Matt Ruben. So a few CDAG members met with them Wednesday, and reported back to the larger group at the meeting.

Of the unresolved issues still under discussion, CDAG’s biggest concerns with the draft center on riverfront access. Members also have concerns about billboards, want civic design review on virtually all projects, and would prefer that parking lots not count toward a project’s required 40 percent open space.

For the most part, Gladstein and Thorp want the same outcomes as CDAG, Ruben said. The question is the best way to get there. “Most of these issues that we disagreed on, they didn’t disagree with the idea. They are just questioning (whether) this is already implicitly covered under some other aspect” of the zoning code or master plan. “But they are willing to talk about it,” he said.

Several members said that while they believed the current planning commission under the current administration would apply the goals of the master plan to development decisions, they could not be certain that would happen in the future without a provision in zoning law, and so it was essential to be absolutely positive everything important was codified.

There is a temporary overlay in place that will stand until the new zoning code goes into effect in August. That overlay contains a list of prohibited uses, including massage parlors, adult cabarets, correctional facilities and non-accessory signs, that is, billboards. The new overlay does not contain this list, and CDAG asked that the list be added to the new document, said Joe Schiavo, of Old City Civic Association.

In general, planning is “hoping that overlays don’t require a list of prohibited uses, that they are dealt with primarily in the underlying zoning,” Schiavo said.

The CDAG reps asked for reconsideration in this case, he said, because while overlays generally cover an area with a single base zoning classification, the Central Delaware Waterfront has many different classifications, and still will when the new code goes into effect. Gladstein and Thorp agreed to look at whether any of the uses from the prohibited list would be possible in industrial parcels – the most permissive zoning classification on the waterfront. A mitigating factor could be those industrial parcels’ proximity to other land uses, Schiavo said. “You can’t have, say, an adult cabaret within 500 feet of a residentially zoned property,” he explained. “They are going to look at it from that perspective to see if any of these need to stay in.”

“Their main goal is to avoid what they perceive as a redundancy in the code,” Ruben added. “They don’t want an overlay prohibiting uses that are already prohibited.”

Schiavo said he was especially concerned about the non-accessory sign use issue. If there was one prohibited use that could be specifically named in the overlay, he’d want it to be that, he said. “I can’t say that I got the traction I wanted, but it’s not yet off the table,” he said.

Ruben said that here again, the planners would need to know how many, if any, non-accessory signs could go up given the new zoning code, and his feeling was if it was discovered they would be possible, the overlay draft would be amended to exclude them.

CDAG members’ concerns about riverfront access were mostly focused around two issues: Will the 50-foot waterfront setback required on all major waterways in the new zoning code, coupled with the overlay and master plan, assure that a riverfront trail will be built? Does the new overlay mandate enough access points down to the river?

The master plan calls for the creation of key connector streets linking neighborhoods to the waterfront. Many of these streets do not currently make it to the whole way to the river, but the plan calls for extending them in the future. The draft overlay prohibits the construction of any permanent structure in the path of one of these river access streets. CDAG members want to do more research to make sure these are at frequent enough intervals, or whether additional access points should also be required.

Schiavo, who represents Old City, said CDAG “thought it was an omission on the part of the overlay that it didn’t include a requirement (for the trail) as part of the development proposal. Just because (a developer) is forced to have the setback, it doesn’t mean they will plan a trail in that area.”

Richard Wolk, who represents Queen Village, said he is concerned because while developments must have a setback, they may be public or private. He thinks the projects most likely to want a private setback will be the big ones, and “if that were the case, what would that potentially do to the trail?”

Ruben said planners can’t imagine that a large development would make it through planning commission review with a private setback. But this is one of the areas where CDAG members thought codification was essential – what if a future administration strips the planning commission of some of its current power?

“The trail is not going to build itself,” noted Patrick Starr, who represents the Pennsylvania Environmental Council on the board.

Starr said that he would feel better about leaning on the project review process to ensure accessible setbacks if planners decide to honor another CDAG request for the new overlay. In the current draft, Schiavo said, civic design review is required for large projects on Delaware Avenue, Columbus Boulevard and the river access streets, but there is no specific mention of waterfront projects. CDAG has asked that the Delaware Riverfront be added to the list.

“They interpreted that, as basically, that we want civic design review for virtually every project,” Schiavo said. “We said yes, that is what we’re asking for. They are looking at that.”

The planners agreed a clarification was needed regarding height limitations, Schiavo said. The draft overlay allows a maximum height of 100 feet, or roughly eight stories. It will now specify that if the underlying base zoning sets a shorter maximum, the underlying limit will prevail, he said.
The new overlay will require active uses on the ground floors of buildings, and CDAG suggested that elementary schools be added to the list of active uses. The planners explained that wouldn’t really work, because elementary schools tend to have “a great deal of blank wall” rather than lots of windows, connecting inside to outside. A school could be built on the waterfront if the entire building were a school, Schiavo said, but one could not be contained on only the ground floor.

Planners seemed receptive to a request that any ground-floor enclosed gardens be public gardens, and they enthusiastically agreed with the point that through-block connections be developed for pedestrians. “They also thought that needed to be amended in the larger zoning code,” Schiavo said.

A CDAG request that parking lots not count toward a 40 percent open space requirement is unlikely to be met, Ruben and Schiavo said. “In the new zoning code, given the likely zoning class here, parking areas will count as open areas,” Schiavo said. “They didn’t see strong logic for making an exception along the riverfront, especially because they are already calling for 40 percent open area, and that’s pretty grand compared to most underlying zoning classifications.”

Ruben said that parking counts as open space currently, and for it not to be measured that way would be a “gigantic change.”

Wolk said he didn’t like the possibility of a development using parking to fulfill a majority of their open space requirement. But his concerns were reduced when Ruben reminded him that in addition to the required planning review process, no development on the river side of Delaware Avenue/Columbus Boulevard can have parking as the primary use.

Planners hope to have the proposed zoning overlay to City Council in May. CDAG will discuss their strategy to work on getting the zoning passed at a future meeting.

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