Squilla introduces old overlay to new zoning code, aiming to keep special Delaware riverfront rules in place

An amendment to prevent a lapse in the special zoning designed to protect the Central Delaware Riverfront from development contrary to the city’s waterfront goals was added to a zoning code clean-up bill at a Rules Committee hearing Wednesday morning and passed out of committee.

First District Councilman Mark Squilla proposed the amendment, which extends the interim Central Delaware Overlay until a replacement passes city council. Unless council passes the bill, the interim overlay will expire on Aug. 22, when the city’s new zoning code takes effect.The new code was passed with a blank placeholder for a new overlay, and at least some of the city’s legal and zoning experts said if the blank area was not filled by the code effective date, there would be no overlay protection at all. The amendment, introduced on Squilla’s behalf by Councilman at Large James Kenney, fills the blank space with the interim overlay language.  Council could vote on the entire set of amendments at its last scheduled meeting.

Sarah Thorp, director of planning for the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, which oversaw the development of the Central Delaware Master Plan, said keeping the interim overlay in place is not ideal, but was the best option left.

“We would still prefer the new overlay, as it is more responsive to the Master Plan,” said Eva Gladstein, deputy executive director of city planning.

“It’s a heck of a lot better than nothing,” said Matt Ruben, chairman of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group and president of Northern Liberties Neighbors Association.

“The extension of the interim overlay is a fallback, but has a silver lining,” he said. “It gives us time to work over the summer on language for the permanent overlay, to address the issues we have with it.”

Waterfront advocates, city planners and Squilla had hoped to have the new overlay inserted into the blank space in the zoning code before council says peace out for the summer on June 21.

But the draft language has been controversial, with property owner representatives saying it would put too many restrictions on development and made some private land unusable without compensation, and advocates for the Central Delaware Master Plan saying it didn’t go far enough to ensure public access to the river and extension of the city’s street grid.

By the time a draft got to Squilla, deadlines were very tight, especially considering council’s struggles with Actual Value Tax and other budget issues. Squilla introduced a bill containing the new overlay legislation knowing there would likely be no time for a full council to vote. But he and city planners were hoping it could be voted out of the Rules Committee. It would then be considered pending legislation, and L&I would have had to apply it to all permit requests.

Last week, Squilla said it did not look like there would be time for a hearing, afterall.

The introduced bill for the new overlay will not die at summer break. It will be taken up again in September.

PlanPhilly reporter Jared Brey contributed to this report.

Contact the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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