Size of riverfront setback could shrink considerably

The 100-foot buffer now required between development and the Delaware River in central Philadelphia may shrink significantly, perhaps to 35 feet.

The larger swath is current law stipulated in the Central Delaware Zoning Overlay, a stop-gap piece of legislation meant to prevent any development from hindering the fruition of Philadelphia’s vision for the waterfront until the more permanent Master Plan for the Central Delaware and affiliated zoning are in place. It has been controversial.

The overlay is based on a vision for the future of the waterfront that was compiled by PennPraxis after more than a year of public input sessions. The Master Plan is also to be largely rooted in the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware, which specifically calls for a 100-foot buffer.

Advocates for the riverfront overlay and master plan – notably members the Central Delaware Advocacy Group – have up until now pushed hard for the 100-foot buffer, saying it would create more habitat for wildlife, improve storm water management, make the waterfront a more tranquil place and boost property values. In CDAG’s Action Plan Progress Report issued in July, the group criticized the city for not doing more to ensure that the 100 foot buffer created in the overlay would be 100-feet of green space.

Critics, often representatives of the Development Workshop, have said the 100 feet would amount to a huge taking of privately owned land, and in some cases, consume most of an owner’s parcel.

But Thursday, when Master Plan Manager Sarah Thorp told CDAG the team working on the Master Plan for the Central Delaware has decided against a 100-foot-buffer in favor of a smaller setback that tied together a string of parks, CDAG members were receptive to the new idea. So was PennPraxis Executive Director Harris Steinberg. Development Workshop Executive Director Craig Schelter was quite pleased.

Thorp told CDAG that the urban planners, landscape architects, economists and others working on the plan think that the objectives of public access, open space, ecological restoration and storm water management could be better achieved by a different configuration of open space.  The bulk of the open space would be consolidated into a series of parks, occurring about every half-mile along the six mile stretch between Oregon and Allegheny avenues and linked by the narrower setback, Thorp told the Central Delaware Advocacy Group.

The parks would range from an acre or so to more than 17 acres in size, Thorp said, and these larger parcels would create much better habitat than would a continuous 100-foot setback. The smaller setback would also be less costly to maintain, Thorp said, and the parks would make the land between them extremely attractive to developers.

Thorp announced the new open space philosophy at CDAG’s regular monthly meeting, giving members a heads up on what to expect at next week’s public forum on the master plan.

 “We’re not going to say a blanket 100-foot setback, and we want to prepare people for that,” she told CDAG.

The Development Workshop’s Schelter said he couldn’t give a full endorsement until learning all the details, but he was happy to hear of the change. “The 35 feet is certainly more sensible than the 100 feet, given where we were and given conditions on site,” he said in a phone interview. “To me, it’s a refreshing movement toward reality.”

When asked if the change was made in response to the Development Workshop, Schelter said he didn’t know. “I would hope that we had some influence on it,” he said, noting that workshop representatives have met with those working on the Master Plan. 

The planners have also met with CDAG, community leaders, business owners and others.

Thorp said that the decision to narrow the setback was based on ecological and economic research compiled by planning team members, not the Development Workshop’s wishes. “I’ve done my best to keep (the team) isolated from those discussions that were going on about the 100 feet,” she said in a telephone interview after the meeting. 

CDAG, the group that was often fighting for the 100-foot setback, won’t take an official position on the proposal until they hear the details at Tuesday’s public meeting. But members were receptive to the smaller setback/large parks concept Thorp presented yesterday.

That specific number was more a symbol for the whole concept of a waterfront setback, Weixler said. If the planners believe the goals can be reached in a different way, CDAG wants to hear about it, he said. “Our main mission is to create a quality, urban waterfront experience,” said Weixler, and the specific size of the setback is less important.

PennPraxis’ Steinberg expressed a similar viewpoint. “100 feet was always an average meant to establish public access and some level of ecological service,” he said in an email. “Having larger parks connected by a generous riverwalk could work well. We’ll want to make sure that the trail is wide enough to accommodate both bike riders and pedestrians – something that is proving difficult on the Upper Schuylkill along Kelly Drive these days.”

While the 100-foot setback is the baseline established by the overlay, developers could automatically leave a smaller buffer if 100 feet consumed more than 20 percent of the land they owned. And, like all zoning, developers could also appeal for relief on a hardship basis.

“I think we’ve been told from the beginning that the setbacks might be varied,” said CDAG Member Matt Ruben. “I think what you’ve brought to us here today, Sarah, is a sense of purpose and reasoning as to why they might be varied.”

Ruben said, however, that before settling on a specific setback size, those working on the master plan must be sure that people using the multi-purpose trail that is to run the length of the waterfront will not feel cramped. “It can’t be an access lane there to satisfy an abstract requirement, but that doesn’t actually provide an enjoyable, relaxing experience free from tension or feeling…”

“…enclosed,” Thorp finished for him.

“Thirty five feet intuitively sounds like a minimum, but a workable minimum,” Ruben said.

Not everyone thinks so, however. Delaware Riverkeeper Maya K. van Rossum said there is a not only a huge ecological benefit to a 100-foot buffer for the creatures that live in and on the river, but the larger swath would prevent development from occurring in areas that are prone to flooding.  And last evening, the umbrella group of waterfront neighborhood organizations known as NABR – Neighbors Allied for the Best Riverfront – sent out an email blast urging its members to go to Tuesday’s meeting to lobby in favor of the 100-foot setback.

“This certainly is something that seems to be coming in from left field,” said NABR’s Dianne Mayer in a telelphone interview Friday. “This seems to be a far cry from the Civic Vision we’ve been advocating for, and it’s been years in the making.”

While Thorp promised more information at that meeting, Thorp did go into some detail about how the new open space concept was developed.

She told those at the CDAG meeting that OLIN Partnership, the landscape architecture firm that is part of the master planning team, has been researching the best ways to meet project goals related to recreation, storm management, open space and ecological restoration over the six-mile stretch from Oregon to Allegheny avenues. Among their findings: “One hundred feet is not enough space to get a large benefit in terms of habitat,” Thorp said. “It’s more like (a minimum of) 300 to 600 feet.”

Thorp said that when the master plan team combined OLIN’s research showing that a 100 foot setback was insufficient to create good habitat with the costs of maintaining a continuous 100 foot right-of-way, the new approach began to emerge.

The planning team identified areas where larger swaths of land would do the most good. Wetlands would be concentrated mostly on the south end, she said. But open space varying in size from just an acre or so to upwards of 17 acres would be scattered along the riverfront about every half-mile. The spacing would mean that residents of riverfront communities would have no more than a 10 minute walk to a park, she said.

Some of the land pegged for some green space – such as the area at the foot of Spring Garden Street – is owned by the DRWC already. Other parcels would have to be purchased through negotiations or eminent domain. Thorp said that acquiring the land for the parks will not be easy, and how to do that will be a focus of the next phase of the master planning team’s work. The land aquisition program will tie in with Philadelphia’s Green2015 plan, which calls for the creation of 500 acres of new public open space.

These larger green spaces would be linked by a right-of-way significantly more narrow than 100 feet, Thorp said. The 35-foot measurement she talked about at the meeting is not set in stone, Thorp said. The final recommendation could be larger or smaller based on community feedback and more research on how much space is needed to accommodate a multi-use trail.
Thorp said she and DRWC President Tom Corcoran see another befit to the narrower setback: Less maintenance. It is probably the DRWC that will do the maintenance of any setback, she said, and it will cost less to maintain 35 feet than 100. Also, she said, it might be possible to use higher-quality materials, such as granite instead of asphalt.

“Once we started looking at who owns the space, and who maintains the space, it starts to become a liability to have 100 feet along the waterfront,” Thorp said in the phone interview.

This configuration would also help convince developers to start creating the new waterfront, Thorp said, because the parks and trail would boost the development value of the land between the parks.

Riverkeeper van Rossum, who plans to attend Tuesday’s meeting, doesn’t like any of the team’s reasoning.  The argument that a narrower buffer would cost less to maintain and allow the use of higher-quality materials bothers her. The buffer should be primarily natural vegetation that needs no maintenance, she said.  The 100-foot swath would likely not bring a host of new animals to live in the city, she said, but it would do improve habitat for the fish and birds already there. And if 300 or 600 feet is better, van Rossum asks, why not make the entire setback that deep?

Van Rossum doesn’t believe that the change was made independently from the pressure of the developers.

“To sacrifice the benefits of the 100 foot buffer because you want to service the desires of a small subset of a community looking to maximize their profit margin to the detriment of everybody else is wholly wrong,” she said.

The Riverkeeper says she wants to see the research that shows 100 feet wouldn’t make much difference. Thorp says she would like to see the research van Rossum says supports the 100 foot buffer, and get her input.

In addition to the open space discussion, Thorp gave CDAG a preview of some of the options that will be presented to the public related to river access.

River access might not always mean extending streets down to the water, Thorp said. At minimum, there should be views of the water from strategic places, she said. Some connections will include roadways, but others might consist of pedestrian walkways or multi-purpose paths.

Tuesday, several different options for key locations that are already publicly owned – Penn’s Landing and the Festival Pier site at the foot of Spring Garden Street – will be presented, Thorp said.

Tuesday’s public forum will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing. Parking will be free. Similarly to a forum held on the Race Street Pier design, several different concepts will be presented for public comment, and the concepts will be refined based on the feedback received, along with that garnered from smaller stakeholder groups and the results of feasibility studies. Tuesday’s session is the final opportunity for the public to comment on the Master Plan before it is  unveiled in February 2011.

Concepts will be presented in four key areas: Penn’s Landing, other key development sites, open space and transportation. Speakers will include Mayor Michael Nutter; Alex Cooper of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, the lead consultant; John Alshuler of HR&A Advisors, also part of the planning team; Tom Corcoran, DRWC President; Marilyn Jordan Taylor, DRWC board member and planning committee chair and dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and Alan Greenberger, the city’s deputy mayor for economic development.

Watch the video above to see Thorp’s presentation, and get more information about what will be presented for public input Tuesday and how the meeting will be formatted.

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