Waterfront advocacy group seems largely pleased with Philadelphia’s Central Delaware Progress, but concerns remain

“Encouraging” and “impressive” progress toward a world-class Philadelphia waterfront has been made, members of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group said, but significant room for improvement remains in some key areas.

CDAG is preparing its second assessment of the city’s progress on the benchmarks outlined in the Action Plan for the Central Delaware, a 10-step, 10-year strategic plan drafted by CDAG and endorsed by the city in 2008 as a means of achieving the city’s vision for the riverfront’s future.

Discussion of the draft of that assessment last week showed that CDAG members are pleased with the overall performance of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the quasi-city agency that manages the publicly owned riverfront lands and recently released the master plan meant to guide development between Oregon and Allegheny avenues for years to come.  DRWC got kudos for seeking public input when it put together the master plan – which the Philadelphia City Planning Commission is expected to consider for adoption Tuesday, and for taking the lead in waterfront issues like traffic management and for securing grants for riverfront projects.

But CDAG members say they can’t give Philadelphia a perfect score for another Action Plan objective – the adoption of the master plan and clear zoning and regulatory policy to go with it – because too much remains uncertain. In 2009, City Council passed a zoning overlay to endorse Civic Vision guidelines until permanent zoning changes could be made based on the master plan. CDAG members say the drafting of the permanent zoning, which would be part of Philadelphia’s new zoning code, has “lagged behind.” And they said no real zoning protection will ever be had unless city council members put an end to the culture of piecemeal planning by variance and ordinance.

Outgoing First District Councilman Frank DiCicco represents most of the Central Delaware Riverfront neighborhoods. He led the initiative for a waterfront redevelopment plan, and drafted the legislation that created the protective temporary zoning overlay.  But DiCicco has also raised the ire of CDAG members and other neighborhood residents by introducing legislation that exempts particular projects from the overlay’s rules. Among them: A zoning bill allowing the owner of a conventional Pennsport billboard advertising Club Risque and a suburban body shop that L&I said should come down to keep it as is or even replace it with a digital one. City Council passed the legislation in June.

Board Member Phillip Stoltzfus questioned why DiCicco was specifically credited for the overlay, but not specifically criticized for “spot zoning” legislation. Member Matt Ruben said that this is about the issue of zoning-by-ordinance, which is greater than any one member of city council. And besides, DiCicco won’t be the first-district councilman for much longer.

Judging by the discussion at the meeting, high marks are also likely to be given for creation and improvement of parks, efforts to extend transit to the river and restoring a natural river’s edge and habitat where possible.

But CDAG is ready to zing the city for failing to survey and determine the  boundary between the privately owned land and the riparian lands – state owned, sometimes submerged riverfront land that can be privately developed only with legislative approval. They are also not pleased that the city has not developed a “comprehensive liability policy” for the multi-purpose waterfront trail “to allay landowners’ concerns” about liability. 

Society Hill resident and anti-casino activist Paul Boni, an attorney, praised CDAG for pushing the city to map the riparian boundary. He said that knowing the location of that boundary may show that all or parts of the waterfront trail can be built on land that is owned by the residents of the commonwealth, not private landowners. Some landowners have said the 50-foot riverfront development setback the master plan requires to make room for the trail amounts to a taking, and Boni said a riparian map may put that issue to bed.

Boni also questioned whether CDAG is 100 percent satisfied with the DRWC’s performance, because he said the high praise in the draft document made it sound like they were. He noted a concern of his that while the DRWC board meetings are advertised and held in public, some committee meetings are not. CDAG Member Joe Schiavo, who is managing the progress report effort, said the report is limited to addressing only actions directly tied to the Action Plan. Board Member Rene Goodwin said that other concerns will be addressed, but in a cover letter.

Board Chairman Steven Weixler noted that the Action Plan calls for steps that must be taken by many city entities, and this year, special effort was taken to specifically note the entity getting praise or criticism in the progress report.

Schiavo will incorporate the latest comments into the document, and upon members’ approval, the final progress report will be released to the public. Weixler said those entities mentioned in the report would get a copy before the public does.

Email the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com.

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