Waterfront advocates, planners red light two car-related projects

A third gets green because it fits well with the waterfront, they say

Three proposed businesses are taking zoning laws that ban certain auto-related uses from the Central Delaware Waterfront on a test drive.

Waterfront advocates, planners and civic leaders say they like the way those behind a Desimone Cadillac proposal for the corner of Fairmount and Delaware avenues are handling the course. Their project calls for an indoor auto showroom with a cafe on the ground floor and apartments on six floors above. There’s no big parking lot with cars outside. There’s a mix of uses, and there’s activity on the ground floor, they say.

But the same groups are signaling red to a Piazza Auto Group plan for a more typical auto dealership at the southwest corner of Delaware Avenue and Brown Street, the site of a current bus facility. And they are seeing red that L&I granted an over-the-counter permit for a AAA auto repair shop near Delaware and Reed, saying the agency violated the zoning it’s supposed to uphold when it did so.

Reducing auto dependency along the Central Delaware, which stretches from Oregon to Allegheny avenues, and from I-95 to the river, is among the goals of The Central Delaware Master Plan and the Central Delaware Overlay, which codifies the plan.

That doesn’t mean banning cars or all car-related uses, said Karen Thompson, planner/project manager at the Central Delaware Waterfront Corporation, the quasi-city agency that manages city-owned Delaware Waterfront land and oversaw creation of both the master plan and overlay. But it does mean regulations and goals designed to make the waterfront people, bicycle and mass-transit friendly. This includes buildings that are close to the sidewalk and have active ground-floor uses, limits on curb-cuts and parking lots. Outdoor auto storage “takes up a lot of space we feel has a higher and better use under the Master Plan,” she said.

The Desimone plan

The Desimone project would be built on the site of a former city asphalt plant. The bill allowing the sale, still in committee, was recently endorsed by the planning commission. See previous coverage. Planning commissioners, enthusiastic about the residential component, seemingly didn’t quite know what to make of the building itself, and hoped to get a chance to learn more as the project is fleshed out (they will if variances are required).

There was no such ambiguity at the recent Central Delaware Advocacy Group meeting. “From CDAG’s perspective, it fits,” said Chairman Matt Ruben. Ruben is also president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, and said NLNA’s zoning committee met with Desimone recently, and was largely pleased.  (Watch the video of the CDAG discusion of all three proposals below.) There are a few items still being discussed, such as greenery. CDAG member Dianne Mayer, who represents Neighbors Allied for the Best Riverfront or NABR, shared that concern, saying just a few trees could make a big difference. Ruben praised Desimone for talking to community groups and First District Councilman Mark Squilla about making the project fit with the Central Delaware even before it’s know if variances will be needed.

“It looks good,” said Marsha Bacal, of Society Hill Towers.

DRWC’s Thompson said DRWC plans to meet with DeSimone. “I will say, from what we’ve seen, it looks like they really wanted to work within the overlay. It definitely looks like it could be really positive, with mixed uses and active uses on the ground floor.”

Piazza Auto Group plan

Piazza Management Group has purchased the land, now used to park Greyhound buses, Ruben said. Local developer Michael Samschick, whose Core Realty is behind the Penn Treaty Village Pennthouse Apartments on the north west side of the same corner, had a purchase agreement on the property, but it said the former owner could sell it if more than a certain amount was offered. Samschick never thought anyone would pay more than that ceiling, Ruben said, but apparently, Piazza has. Piazza’s plan: Building a fairly traditional car dealership with a large lot of cars for sale. The site, Ruben said, is about 1.5 or 2 acres.

Calls made Thursday to Piazza and the project’s land use attorney, Ron Patterson, have not yet been returned.

But Ruben told CDAG that Piazza’s interpretation of the overlay is that they could build the dealership, so long as the building was adjacent to Delaware Avenue and the car lot behind it.

That’s not how CDAG sees things, and it’s not how city planners do either, said Natalie Shieh, who is deputy chief of staff for Deputy Mayor and Planning Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger.

The overlay does allow accessory parking, so long as the lot is behind the building and “holds the street line,” said Shieh.

But while Piazza considered the cars for sale accessory to the business, “just like customer cars,” Ruben said, the PCPC disagrees.

“Refer to 14-507(4)(b) of the code,” Shieh wrote in an email. “It says that a ‘personal vehicle sales and rental’ use is permitted, as long as the use is in an enclosed structure. Any cars for sale are part of the ‘personal vehicle sales and rental use,’ and therefore must be in an enclosed structure,” she said. (This is also why the Desimone proposal meets this requirement.)

“They would have to get a variance to do this,” Ruben said of the Piazza proposal.

Neither Shieh nor Rubin knew what Piazza’s current plans are.

Thompson said DRWC has never “officially” heard anything about this proposal, but “a conventional car dealership is not in keeping with the overlay,” and it’s a “safe bet,” that DRWC would testify against the granting of any variance.

AAA proposal

Although automotive repair is a prohibited use under the Central Delaware Overlay, L&I on Jan. 2 issued a permit for “new construction for the service and light repair of automobiles, retail sales of travel services and insurance and business offices” at 1601 S. Christopher Columbus Blvd., which is at the corner of Columbus and Tasker near the former Foxwoods Casino site, and next to Home Depot, in Pennsport.

While the overlay had been in effect for about seven months by the time that permit was issued, L&I spokeswoman Rebecca Swanson said the date that matters is the date on which the application was filed – June 4, 2013, one day before the City Council Rules Committee voted to recommend its passage to full council. Committee action makes a bill pending legislation, and pending legislation must be applied by L&I, so the application just got in under the wire.

“We issued the permit based on what was in place at time,” Swanson said. “It wouldn’t be fair if someone applied, and then the rules changed, to say, ‘now you can’t have it.’”

But until the new overlay went into effect, an interim overlay was in place. While the interim overlay did not prohibit auto repair outright, it did require any permit applicant with a project on the east side of Columbus Boulevard/Delaware Avenue to submit a Plan of Development to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, and go through a review process in which PCPC could support the project, or not. Decisions were made based on both the interim overlay and the goals of the master plan.

That did not happen.

Both the Pennsport Civic Association and CDAG say that whichever overlay applied, the proper procedure was not followed.

“This should not have been granted,” Pennsport Civic Association President Jim Moylan said. Pennsport has filed an appeal, which will be heard by the L&I Review Board – a quasi-judicial board that operates similarly to the Zoning Board of Adjustment – at 2 p.m. April 2.

Moylan said Pennsport is appealing based on procedure, but doesn’t like the intended use, either. The area has enough auto repair, he said, and if Pennsport is to be the southern gateway to the Central Delaware Waterfront, there are other uses that are more appropriate.

“What is most upsetting (and) frustrating is there was a law, an order, that already exists to protect us from this sort of thing, and they still went and granted the permit anyway. They should have shot this down before it ever got to us.”

People in Pennsport found out about the project when an orange demolition sticker went on the vacant, former construction company building that had been on the site.

CDAG’s position is that Pennsport shouldn’t have to appeal. “To me, it’s a no-brainer; L&I should revoke the permit,” Ruben said. CDAG has said as much in a letter to L&I, a copy of which attached at the bottom of this article.

Ruben said that since the interim overlay was in place until the current overlay was adopted, one or the other would have to apply to any permit. “L&I needs to pay attention to the law.”

Moylan said he and Squilla tried to get L&I to revoke the permit, but were told that wasn’t possible, and an appeal had to be filed. Moylan is grateful to have found out about the proposed repair shop when he did – Pennsport nearly missed the 30-day appeal filing window, he said.

Swanson said that CDAG would also be told that a permit cannot be revoked without an appeal.

“We wouldn’t just undo what we did. It’s a legal process,” she said. “L&I Review has to sort it out.”

Moylan said Pennsport attorney has advised them that during the appeal, the permit-holder is allowed to start construction.

Thompson said DRWC is still researching the AAA project situation and hasn’t taken an official position yet, but according to the dates supplied by L&I, “it should have triggered POD and it didn’t.”

The project “is certainly not in keeping with” the goals for Delaware Avenue, she said. “It’s not a use that is an active, particularly pedestrian-oriented use,” she said. Generally, the design of such facilities involves lots of curb cuts, she said.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Jenny Robinson said in an email that AAA hopes to start construction of the $3 million project this spring.

“AAA Mid-Atlantic began our process with the 1601 S. Columbus Boulevard property in May 2011, and reached an agreement and lease with the land owner after nearly two years of negotiations in January 2013,” she wrote. “We then applied for and received zoning approval and building permits, by submitting all required documents to the city’s Licenses and Inspections department. After an extremely long process to secure this site, we are excited about the location and plan to start construction in May.”

She said construction will employ “dozens” of union building trade workers and bring 25 permanent jobs, including 12 automotive services positions.

“AAA looks forward to being a positive part of the community, just as we have been with our Car Care, Insurance and Travel (CCIT) stores that we recently opened in Willow Grove, Clifton Heights and Wayne. Our CCIT stores are clean, modern and attractive, quite different from the perception of a typical automotive facility.”

AAA did not comment on the permit appeal.


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