Waterfront advocates taking aim at zoning changes that linger without the development that inspired them

If a development isn’t built, any zoning changes that were granted for it should expire, say members of an advocacy group that defends the city’s goals for the Central Delaware Waterfront.

The Central Delaware Advocacy Group has made the development of “reasonable sunset provisions” a priority goal.

Change is needed “so that we no longer go through another 30-year process of flipping parcels for profit instead of ever putting a spade in the ground,” CDAG member Richard Wolk, who represents Queen Village on the board, said in a recap of goals established at a recent group retreat.

 CDAG Chairman Matt Ruben, who is also president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, said later the goal is achieving a better balance. “Developers need reasonable amounts of time to assemble parcels, design projects, secure financing, and arrange everything that needs to be arranged in the often complex world of development,” he said. “At the same time, it’s not good for anyone, including developers, if parcels remain vacant or dormant or underdeveloped for years, or sometimes even decades.”

There are two ways in which zoning can be changed, and two variations on the lingering zoning theme.

Developers granted a variance through the Zoning Board of Adjustment technically have a year in which to pull building permits before the variance expires.  “But right now, through a combination of city and state rules, from when you get your zoning approval to when you have to put your shove in the ground, it can easily be 7 years,” Ruben said.  So you can own a huge parcel of land, spend a few thousand or even less and basically purchase the right to sit on it whatever zoning you want for seven years.”

That’s because developers can receive two, three-year extensions.  The state law was originally passed in 2010 in response to poor economic conditions that hampered developers’ ability to get financing. The thought behind it was that developers shouldn’t have to go through, and pay for, the process multiple times for factors out of their control.  The state law created the extensions; the city requires developers to file an application with L&I.

When zoning is changed not by variance, but by an ordinance passed by city council, the zoning change sticks indefinitely unless the council bill contains a sunset or a second bill changes the zoning again. It’s this variety of zoning change that can result in parcels sitting for decades.  “It’s not helpful if individuals use development proposals to upgrade the zoning of their properties and then simply sit on them hoping to sell them for a profit because they have upgraded the zoning,” Ruben said. This is generally an uptick in the amount of development, or density, allowed on a parcel. “In the worst cases, it’s like a game of musical chairs. The property changes hands several times and each owner profits, and everyone is waiting to see who will get stuck with a property that no one can afford to develop at all.

CDAG will take on both kinds of lingering zoning, Ruben said. “From the perspective of people who are trying to use the waterfront recreationally, from those who would like to build there….from all those people on the ground, it doesn’t matter that it’s two different issues,” he said. “It’s vacant land that is not as available for eminent development as we might like it to be.”

The group doesn’t yet have a specific prescription for these issues, Ruben said.  “The first order of business is to impress on city and state officials what the problem is,” he said. From there, discussion could commence about how best to address the situation, he said.

CDAG rose out of an advisory group created in 2006 when Philadelphia first launched the public process resulting in goals for the stretch of waterfront between Allegheny and Oregon avenues and I-95 and the Delaware River.  It is now a non-profit, comprised of representatives of all the Central Delaware civic organizations and other entities concerned with the Central Delaware, including the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

So far, CDAG has primarily focused its efforts on decisions made by city elected and appointed officials. The group has frequently written letters and/or testified before Philadelphia City Council and its committees, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and its Design Review Committee and the Zoning Board of Adjustment, with an occasional letter CC’d to a state representative. The impetus was always a project or proposed local ordinance that would impact the Delaware.  

“CDAG must advocate on all political levels, city and state, to develop reasonable sunset provisions,” Wolk said.

While this could mean talking to different people,  CDAG is not interested in expanding its interests beyond the Central Delaware and the goals of the Master Plan, Ruben said. “But if there are legislative or policy or development issues that directly impact the Central Delaware, but happen to not be contained to the Central Delaware, we will not hesitate to get involved,” he said.

Ruben noted that CDAG advocated for the city-wide waterfront setback.  Requiring a buffer zone between development and the Central Delaware was central to both the Master Plan and the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware on which that plan is based. But it became a city-wide issue, and the setback now applies to all waterfronts, not just the Central Delaware.

Other new or re-newed CDAG goals include monitoring the mayor election. This includes holding a candidates forum for the coming mayoral race “so that we can advocate for and support candidates who best respect the master plan and zoning overlays,” Wolk said. CDAG said the new mayor and administration should continue to allow the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation – the quasi-city agency which manages the plan and publicly owned water-front land – to remain independent, and new mayoral appointees to boards such as the planning commission should not change the commitment to or vision of the Master Plan.

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