Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Philadelphia's City Planning Commission OKs a master plan for the Delaware riverfront

"More than five years in the making, a new master plan for a six-mile stretch of the central Delaware River was unanimously approved Tuesday by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.

Despite objections from a group representing property owners, the eight commissioners adopted the development plan for the waterfront from Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia to Allegheny Avenue in Port Richmond.

"This area has languished for too long," said Commissioner Joseph Syrnick. "It needs a plan."

The master plan calls for more low-rise buildings, a waterfront trail, better public access to the river, parks every half-mile, and extension of the city's street grid to the water's edge.

About 100 people attended the meeting at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia, including many from neighborhood groups that participated in the planning process.

Neil Sklaroff, an attorney for the owner of one of the largest undeveloped tracts on the waterfront, said that while much of the plan was "wonderful," it nevertheless would have a "devastating effect" on his client, James Anderson, a Bucks County construction company owner.

Anderson controls 57 acres of waterfront land - either directly or through partnerships - on the northern end of the district.

Sklaroff said the plan, with its proposal for a waterfront trail and extension of streets, would chop up Anderson's two parcels into 13.

"They didn't need to adopt this," he said after the meeting.

As part of the plan, the city would need to invest $770 million over 25 years to upgrade the infrastructure and public spaces along the central Delaware.

G. Craig Schelter, executive director of the Development Workshop, an advocacy group for private property owners along the Delaware, criticized the plan as "overly aspirational."

In a letter he read to the commission, Schelter said there was no "reasonable expectation" that the city could afford to carry out the plan.

He added that the master plan will "impose public access rights on private property without compensation, which is bad planning."

Ninety percent of the land in the central Delaware is privately owned, most of it on the northern and southern ends of the district. Schelter argued that there was "no urgency" to proceed with the master plan.

He argued that it would have been better for the commission to focus on the area between Washington Avenue and Spring Garden Street, where the city controls large tracts of land, including the site of the old municipal incinerator.

By having so many encumbrances imposed by the new master plan, owners will be in "development limbo," Schelter said.

"Why would you approve such a plan when you know you can't afford it?" he asked.

The commission will use it to guide future decisions on waterfront land use. It also will be used as a reference in a remapping of the zoning for the waterfront.

Planning for the waterfront began in 2006. John F. Street, mayor at the time, commissioned Penn Praxis, an arm of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, to conduct a broad dialogue on what the waterfront should look like.

With unprecedented input from stakeholders as well as neighbors, Penn Praxis presented a "civic vision" in 2008. It called for better public access to the waterfront, restored wetlands, more recreational outlets, low-rise neighborhoods, and no big-box stores or residential skyscrapers.

From that, the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC), a quasi-city agency, developed a blueprint for the six miles of waterfront. Last October, all the nonprofit's directors - including Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, who heads the Planning Commission - endorsed the plan.

Thomas Corcoran, executive director of the DRWC, said a master plan will help development, not hinder it, by clearly setting a direction for the waterfront.

"I fail to see how this has a devastating effect on anyone," Corcoran said.

He said DRWC was already moving ahead on various fronts to advance the vision for the waterfront, including:

Expanding the park at Washington Green near Pier 53.

Studying different potential uses for Pier 9, which is owned by DRWC.

Improving the appearance of Spring Garden Street and Columbia Avenue "connectors" - the public corridors leading to the waterfront.

Expanding a trail from Spring Garden to SugarHouse Casino and its existing waterfront pathway.

"We're establishing the right things at the right scale," Greenberger said.

He added that the master plan sets "a very broad policy statement," but that the commission will be able to make exceptions. For example, if an industrial company needed waterfront property with water access, "we would be required to consider the plan, but we would not be compelled to have it take precedence over other legal issues."

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