Some of CDAG’s concerns regarding a waterfront zoning overlay remain, as the deadline to get a draft to city council nears

A group that advocates for the city’s plan to revitalize the Central Delaware waterfront still has some worries about future waterfront zoning designations. Concerns hinge on billboards and other non-accessory signs, how exceptions to a height-limit are granted, and the requirements for new development at key streets to make way for river access.

These issues are all tied to the new Central Delaware Zoning Overlay, which the Philadelphia City Planning Commission continues to work on, with input from The Central Delaware Advocacy Group and other organizations.

At a Thursday night meeting, CDAG chairman Matt Ruben and member Joe Schiavo told the group about a recent meeting with PCPC Deputy Executive Director Eva Gladstein at which CDAG’s concerns were raised. First District Councilman Mark Squilla – who would introduce the legislation under councilmanic privilege, was also present at the meeting. Unfortunately, Ruben said, he could not say specifically how successful CDAG’s attempts for change were, because he had not received a new draft of the overlay. He and Schiavo gave their impressions based on the meeting, however.

Simply put, an overlay is an extra set of zoning rules put on a geographical area, in addition to the established base zoning classification. Ruben said that the PCPC also plans to make changes to the base zoning in the Central Delaware Waterfront, which stretches from the water to I-95, and from Oregon to Allegheny avenues.

Everyone knew remapping was coming as part of the city’s new comprehensive plan. The city has been divided into 18 planning districts, each of which is getting a more-detailed, district level comprehensive plan. After a district’s comprehensive plan is finished, zoning remapping will happen based on that plan. Much of the Central Delaware Waterfront is contained in the Central District, and its comprehensive plan is set to be completed later this year.

But Ruben said Thursday that the commission isn’t waiting for that, or for the South and River Ward comprehensive plans, which won’t be finished until even later, to be done before it remaps the Central Delaware.

“This is a good thing, right?” asked CDAG member Patrick Starr, who represents the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

CDAG members had mostly good, but mixed, feelings. On the one hand, they said, the sooner the new zoning classifications are laid down on the waterfront, the less chance that a development that would be contrary to the city’s goals for that space could slip through the cracks.

But on the other hand, would there be time for public input? It now seems so. Squilla wants a hearing.

The zoning code rules go into effect in late August, and Planning Commission Executive Director Gary Jastrzab told PlanPhilly recently that the overlay will get to City Council in time to also go into effect then.  A remapping ordinance would also require council approval.

Council goes on break in June, and Ruben noted that any new legisation would have to be introduced next week in order to be adopted before recess, unless council goes into a special session.

“We hope to have the text of the ordinance ready by next week,” Gladstein said in a Friday afternoon email. “The Councilman (Squilla) will determine the date of introduction.”

After the most recent Delaware River Waterfront Association Meeting,  Jastrzab said zoning changes would be few, and would focus on parcels that are currently zoned industrial, but would not be used for industrial purposes under the Central Delaware Master Plan.

Ruben said at the CDAG meeting he is under the impression that base zoning changes won’t get to council before summer recess, but in the fall. That is still a very ambitious schedule for such a project, he said.

CDAG member Tom Otto, of Pennsport, said he was a bit suspicious. Why would the remapping of an important part of the city be done so quickly, and at a time when many people would be down the shore? Most of any changes to underlying zoning are anticipated to be made in the far north and far south portions of the Central Delaware, and that includes Pennsport.

Ruben said he did not think there was any hidden agenda, but agreed that the timing could give people a bad impression.

In her Friday email, Gladstein said,  “I understand that Councilman Squilla wants to review any proposed remapping bills with stakeholders. After that review, he will determine the date of introduction of the legislation. Once the legislation is introduced, the Planning Commission will put it on the agenda for its next meeting. “

As for the extra layer of zoning contained in the zoning overlay, Ruben and Schiavo summarized the discussions with PCPC like this:

-Non-accessory signs: CDAG thinks non-accessory signs, often billboards, should be expressly banned in the Central Delaware. Ruben said planning showed that there are very few areas, just based on underlying zoning, where billboards could go. And these locations would be reduced even further when billboard regulations requiring any billboard to be a certain distance from another billboard or from specific places including schools and churches, are factored in. Still, CDAG would rather have the expressed ban, he said. He did not think planners were amenable. Schiavo noted that not all non-accessory signs are billboards, and for this reason, he thinks it’s worth continuing to push.
-Exceptions to the 100-foot height limit on buildings. The overlay draft caps building height at 100 feet, unless underlying zoning has a shorter height limit. But it allows for exceptions. The first draft listed the conditions in which exceptions could be granted, and CDAG was fine with that. But planners thought the list was too restrictive. In more recent language, the list of conditions is more vague, and the Planning Commission has the right to grant a height waiver.

CDAG members questioned the legality of this, saying that waivers seemed like a new animal, and asked if these situations weren’t something better addressed by the Zoning Board of Adjustment, via variance. PCPC assured the CDAG members who met with them that this is a power that can legally rest with planning commissioners. Ruben said he told them that was okay, but asked for a more specific list of conditions for waivers to be included in overlay language. The planners seemed amenable to this, he said.

-Waterfront access. The original overlay draft prohibited the building of permanent structures that would block the future extension of 10 key river access streets to the river. The current draft doesn’t have that language. It requires development plans to include a 12-foot wide “open area of unencumbered space” to allow pedestrians to travel through the property. That path wouldn’t have to be a straight shot. Twelve feet isn’t wide enough for a street.

Ruben said planners changed the language because it was too restrictive. He said planners pointed to Germantown Avenue, which meets Delaware Avenue at an angle. If Germantown Avenue were extended at the same angle “it would screw up lots of land” for future development, by cutting parcels in an odd way, Ruben said.

Ruben said he told the planners that CDAG wouldn’t care if Germantown or another key street could not connect to the waterfront at the same angle the road travels in now. The angle isn’t the issue, he said. Access is the issue, and 12 feet isn’t enough access.

Both the planners and Squilla were amenable to changing the wording to increase the required access size to the same width as the current street right-of-way. “They will write it in,” Ruben said. But planners weren’t sure that the language would stay in by the time the draft reaches city council – they anticipated push-back from other stakeholders, including land owner groups, Ruben said.

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