UPDATED: Waterfront stakeholders talk about ways to entice developers to provide access and build the proposed trail

Owners of property along the Central Delaware waterfront would be encouraged, but not forced, to allow public access to the river if current language under consideration for a zoning overlay is adopted by city council.

First District City Councilman Mark Squilla has held meetings on the Central Delaware Waterfront Overlay with city planners and other key waterfront stakeholders: The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (which oversaw the creation of the city’s plan for the Central Delaware), the Central Delaware Advocacy Group (whose members represent a host of waterfront civic and other organizations) and the Development Workshop Inc. (an advocacy group which represents the views of landowners and developers).

“I think it’s really been helpful to have opposite sides at the table, discussing reasonings for their beliefs,” Squilla said. “It seems like all groups are finally realizing that this is going to happen, and they are really to compromise, and know that we are putting together such a great benefit to the Central Delaware and the growth of the city.”

The goal is to design the overlay so that, along with base zoning, it guides future development according to the principles of the Central Delaware Master Plan. Key master plan goals include: Mixed-use, mostly neighborhood-scale development with active ground-floor uses; public access to the waterfront and the creation of a multi-purpose trail, and the extension of the street grid to the river. 

The Development Workshop has long argued that requiring private developers and landowners to allow the trail on their property amounted to a public taking.

Leaving 50 feet between the river and any permanent structure will be mandatory, Squilla said in a Friday afternoon interview.

Stream buffer legislation that would set a setback requirement on all rivers and streams is working its way through council. “But whatever comes out of that, we’re looking to have a 50-foot buffer on the Central Delaware,” Squilla said. If the stream buffer legislation is altered before it passes, he will add language to the overlay. “There is no reason not to have a 50-foot buffer on the Delaware.”

Deputy Mayor and Planning Commission Chair Alan Greenberger,  who is also a member of the DRWC board, said a lot of land within the setback is hard or difficult to build on, anyway, because it is in the floodplain.

But buffer and access are two separate issues.

If the final legislation doesn’t change from current discussions, landowners could chose from a menu of ways to allow public access, including granting access while retaining control of the section of their property where the trail passes or selling that section of the property to the city.

“No one has ever talked about condemnation” for trail creation, said DRWC Planning Manager Karen Thompson.

The language now calls for a 100-foot cap on building height – except where underlying zoning sets the height lower.  The Philadelphia City Planning Commission, which must approve plans of development for most waterfront projects, can grant exceptions allowing for additional height.

The Planning Commission is now working to refine a bonus structure that, similarly to other parts of the new zoning code, would include a chart establishing clear conditions that can be met to earn specific bonuses.  Squilla has said planners are also looking at how this would impact future development, and will report back to the group.

CDAG representative Joe Schiavo said access-related options are among the give-backs that could earn a developer more height.  Allowing the city to build the trail through a property would yield some increase. Developers who paid for the construction of that trail or built it themselves according to the trail standards would get even more height.

Providing trail access won’t be the only way for developers to make their buildings taller, and everything will be spelled out clearly in the overlay, Squilla said. “The developer will know exactly what the bonus will be depending on how much open space his or her project has, affordable housing, apartment rentals, LEED certification, infrastructor for transportation or art,” he said. “He or she will know ahead of time what can and what cannot get additional height.”

Participants at the last meeting talked about giving the height bonuses in terms of stories, not feet, because some developments have higher ceilings, so a single story eats up more space.

Both the Workshop and CDAG  have for years said a huge stumbling block to access is the liability question – who would be responsible if someone using the proposed riverfront trail got hurt?  Two possibilities were brought up at the last meeting, Schiavo said. Under one, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation – which in addition to developing the master plan manages city-owned waterfront property – would add each new section of trail to its property. Under another scenario, liability issues would be handled through Parks and Recreation, along with those at other city parkland.

“I think what everyone would prefer is an announcement on the part of the city as to what the policy will be going forward,” Schiavo said.

As part of an update given at the quarterly DRWC Board of Directors meeting Friday, Vice President for Operations Joe Forkin, who was at the meeting, said he’s anticipating additional trail will be added to DRWC’s insurance policies.  Staff has begun a study to determine not only insurance cost, but maintenance cost, for opening additional land to the public, he said. The results will help DRWC better understand not only what the future trail will add to its budget, but any other additional parcels that open as public green space in the future, he said. Squilla said he anticipates the liability issue will wind up handled by DRWC.
The waterfront overlay will likely call for a developers to leave a greater amount of open space in their projects than in most other parts of the city. Schiavo said all parties have seemed amenable to this, provided the set-back counts toward that open space – and would continue to count toward that total even if a developer has sold or turned over control of that portion of the property to the city.

Progress  has also been made on the river access streets issue. Earlier drafts of the overlay said no permanent structure could be built that would prevent the extension of these streets to the water. Developers didn’t like that, because continuing some streets at the same angle they meet Delaware Ave. or Columbus Blvd. would bisect properties in awkward ways, making them hard to develop.

CDAG didn’t mind changing the angle when it made sense, but did not like the original proposed solution, because it allowed the connection to be a pathway smaller than the original street. The current proposal: River access streets must be continued at the same width, but the angle can be different. There has also been agreement to remove Mifflin Street on the southern end of the Central Delaware from the list of river access streets. Discussion continues about swapping Berks Street on the northern end for another northern street, but Schiavo said talks have lately shifted toward keeping Berks, in light of the other accommodations.

The overlay has been in the works for a long time – Squilla had originally hoped it would be passed by city council previous to this past summer’s recess – at least in large part because master plan advocates and developers have each had concerns about the implications of the evolving legislation.

Squilla is hopeful that a final draft of the legislation will be achieved in mid-November, and that the legislation will at least be introduced before the city council session ends about a month later.  As long as the legislation is introduced, everyone “will have to abide by it”  until the council vote is taken on it, Squilla said, because of pending legislation rules.

Schiavo said he feels comfortable with the direction the talks are going.  “This is all seeming very reasonable,” he said.

Thompson said DRWC has been in attendance at the meetings to advise what the master plan says on various issues.  When asked how the current ideas under discussion stack up against the plan, Thompson said she could not comment on that until the draft legislation is finished.

Greenberger said he also thinks things are headed in the right direction and the overlay will be consistent with the master plan. There are going to be some refinements, and may even be amendments, he said. “Zoning is hard.”

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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