Members of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group worry that the Philadelphia City Planning Commission's recent acceptance of the development plan for a 180-unit, 11-story apartment building near the Ben Franklin Bridge shows an unwillingness to really push developers to meet the principals of the city's Master Plan for the Central Delaware.
CDAG Board Member Joe Schiavo, who is also a member of the Old City Civic Association, said what was especially perplexing is that commissioners seemed to share the same concerns about the Marina View Towers' height, massing, commercial space and design as CDAG, local civic groups, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation and the commission's own staff.
“The staff made five or six recommendations, and the developer accommodated three in part, and ignored the others,” Schiavo said. “I don't understand why they couldn't say, 'Make these changes, and then come back for approval,” he said after the meeting.
Schiavo said the project is better than it was originally, because developer Ensemble Real Estate responded to earlier input. But with additional changes, the 230-250 N. Columbus Boulevard project could have been much better still, and more in keeping with the waterfront master plan, he said.
“I thought there was an opportunity to improve the project further, and in my mind, the planning commission squandered that opportunity.”
The apartment building plan includes a garage with 180 parking spots, and some Commissioners said they felt the parking could be reduced in favor of more transparency and activity on the ground level. Others wondered whether the entrance to the building, which is planned for Vine Street, wouldn’t be better placed elsewhere.
In a letter to the Planning Commission, CDAG expressed its support of mixed-use development on the waterfront, but said the plan fails to maximize the commercial potential of the site, provides an unnecessary amount of parking, and employs an aesthetic design that “is singularly unimaginative in its general massing scheme.”
“The Master Plan is now official Planning Commission, and City, policy,” wrote CDAG chair Matt Ruben, in the letter. “If the Master Plan is to become a reality, it must become the standard against which each development proposal along the Central Delaware is measured.”
In earlier coverage, PlanPhilly reporter Jared Brey noted that commissioners were trying to balance their desire to see new development on the waterfront with a desire to see development consistent with the master plan. While most said there were changes they would like to see, and some worried themselves about setting a bad precedent, in the end, only vice-chairman Joe Syrnick voted in opposition.
“I think what we saw at the planning commission is a troubling sign,” Ruben said Thursday. “It takes will and fortitude, not to even say 'no,' but to say, 'not yet,'” he said.
Ruben said civic associations have long had the reputation of being anti-development, and while he thinks that's unfair, he understands that it would be harder for planning commissioners to endure such an accusation.
Ruben noted that the tower is 130 feet. The new, yet-to-be adopted waterfront overlay calls for a 100-foot height maximum, unless underlying zoning caps it at a lower height. It allows for hardship exceptions, and Ruben noted that this building has one: Because it is in a floodplain, the building's height must be raised eight feet. “So allow 108 feet,” he said.
Ruben said that commissioners seemed to be struggling with how to deal with the 100-foot issue on other projects he heard about as information-only items.
CDAG will send a letter with its position to the planning commission, after determining exactly what members want to say. The options: Telling the commission they should always strongly hold the line on anything over 100 feet tall, or instead saying the commission should require any developer who wants to build over 100 feet to prove there is a clear, public benefit to going over that limit.
Member Dianne Mayer asked what more CDAG could do to convince the planning commission to push for Master Plan compliance.
Ruben said, “a lot of what the A stands for in our acronym.” That's advocacy.