Why Pennsport is fighting a Wawa on the waterfront

Pennsport residents oppose developer Bart Blatstein’s plan to build a Super Wawa gas station on a parcel of land along the Delaware River waterfront.

(Courtesy of Wawa)

(Courtesy of Wawa)

Pennsport doesn’t want gas pumps on the Delaware River waterfront. 

That is the overarching message neighborhood residents have for developer Bart Blatstein about his latest plans to fill one of the neighborhood’s most high-profile vacancies with a Wawa convenience store and filling station. 

Attorneys for the developer presented the Super Wawa to the Pennsport Civic Association Wednesday as a required step before going to the city’s zoning board for final approvals. It was the second time the group saw plans for the project, which is planned for an overgrown lot bounded by South Columbus Boulevard and the river, Tasker and Reed streets. 

But while the developer presented new drawings, neighbors voiced the same concerns they did a year ago, at Blatstein’s firm’s first presentation. 

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“We’re trying to get away from car-centric uses at the waterfront,” said Brandon Gussoni, board member of the Pennsport RCO. “And here they are proposing a gas station.”

Placed side by side, the 2018 and 2019 designs look like a spot-the-difference game.

The fueling station and the convenience store have switched places. A parcel along the edge of Columbus Blvd., where the store originally fronted, is now designated as a landscaping buffer, with a driveway that cuts across it and toward the gas station canopy. The intersection, though, remains the same. So are the parking spaces and the eight gas pumps. 

The key difference isn’t in the pictures — it’s in the policy. 

Gas pumps aren’t permitted along South Columbus and last year the zoning board denied a variance based on the pump’s placement on the boulevard. Moving the filling station so it doesn’t front Columbus, “changes the legal standard upon which the pumps would be permitted,” Matthew McHugh, the developer’s lawyer said Wednesday. The project no longer needs a zoning variance, it needs a special exemption. 

Anne Kelly, chief of staff for Councilmember Mark Squilla’s office, said that change was likely calculated because the developer knew the project doesn’t have the support it needs to get a variance.

“My guess is that they’re going the other route, the special exemption route, to get away from approval of the community, which they knew they weren’t getting,” Kelly said.

Attorneys for the developer tried to sway public opinion on Wednesday by pointing to infrastructure adjustments made to the intersection. Traffic light timing has been adjusted and access for bikers and pedestrians improved, they said. At one point during the meeting, McHugh said the Super Wawa development “fits the character of the neighborhood.” 

That point was met with peals of laughter from residents who said the development runs directly counter to the city’s goals to make the Delaware waterfront more accessible, pedestrian-friendly and integrated into neighborhoods. One woman said that the proposed bike lane cuts across a different bike lane. Others pointed to growing traffic congestion, which they said would only be aggravated by a new gas station. 

“We’re being squeezed, we’re being strangled,” said Lisa Grivnovics, who works at nearby Furness High School and lives just blocks away from the proposed development. “Why doesn’t [the developer] go somewhere else?”

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation said the project violates the spirit of the city’s zoning code, if not the letter of the law. 

“The goal of the master plan and of our overlay and from all the improvements we’ve been working on is to move away from this type of auto-oriented, suburban-style development,” said Karen Thompson, director of planning for the DRWC. 

For her, Blatstein’s switcheroo doesn’t solve the fundamental conflict.  

“Adding such a car-dependent use in an area where it’s already congested, and we want pedestrians and transit users, it just creates conflict,” she added. “A convenience store isn’t the issue. But a gas station is for a car.”

The project will go before the city’s zoning board on Sept. 25. 

Blatstein’s attorneys will be there. And, Pennsport community members say so will they.

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