By Thomas J. WalshFor PlanPhilly
Land along the Delaware River within the city of Philadelphia, much of it privately held in a death grip for decades, may finally be coming to market. Some of it may arrive via disappointment (that a casino, or riverboat, could not be landed) and some of it may come to market because riverside environmental stewardship is too big of a legal question mark.
As for the seven designated miles now within the Central Delaware interim overlay district, it is likely all of the above, developers say. One big piece of the puzzle, though, seems to be shaking out.
The parcel owned by James Anderson, a Philadelphia area businessman with an eponymously named construction company (a major paving contractor), is about to put his significant holding up for sale – something made easier Tuesday by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.
Totaling somewhere 55 and 60 acres on two main parcels, it is enormous.
The zoning bill would re-map the area bounded by Cumberland Avenue, Berks Street, and the river. It was introduced by Councilman Frank DiCicco, in whose district the land is situated, on May 14, and would the property’s designation from “G2” (industrial) to “C3” (commercial mixed use).
Most of the riverfront properties to the north of the site, in use or not, are industrial, including a concrete plant. Immediately to the south are the SugarHouse Casino site, a PECO Energy plant and Penn Treaty Park.
Normally, zoning changes for properties at this scale are accompanied by a plan of development. But Tom Chapman, Anderson’s attorney, was blunt in saying that his client is not a developer, and wants to sell the land.
“In this case, this property is not in demand by anyone,” Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger told PlanPhilly after the meeting. “This is a means of incentivizing, because here, the property needs a boost.”
The move comes after the rezoning ordinance was unanimously passed out of City Council’s Rules Committee on June 4. “Mr. Anderson would like to be in a better position to market his property,” said Chapman, at that hearing.
A ‘chicken and egg thing’
The land was once a potential location for a Pinnacle Casino, but was not selected by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board as one of the two city-sited casino projects. The Pinnacle proposal included a lagoon and an entertainment area, Greenberger said.
“This site is extremely large and warrants much consideration,” said Commissioner Nancy Rogo Trainer. She wondered if there might be potential unintended consequences.
“It’s a fair question,” replied Greenberger. “Does it provide a disincentive?” But, he added, “There’s nothing going on there,” and said Anderson “has indicated a willingness to work with the Commission.”
“If – if – an industrial use came back that seemed like the right thing to do on the waterfront, I’m quite sure we would entertain it and we would be coming back to you (the full Commission) with a new kind of proposal,” Greenberger said.
Trainer also inquired about the ability of a new owner to sub-divide the property, but Greenberger said that any development proposals would have to pass through Planning and the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
Greenberger, calling the concept of a zoning change to attract developers a “chicken and egg thing,” said he could not say if the owners of other parcels along the river will come forward for similar zoning changes, now that the overlay district is in place and an overall waterfront plan is in the works.
“It will be a trend if it’s successful,” he said. “This is to see if something can be jump-started by way of development. It’s certainly an opportunity to look at some of the possibilities for ... mixed-use development that might be able to happen. It’s totally possible that nothing will happen. We simply don’t know.”