A mega development coming to the Delaware River waterfront will include a swath of a long-planned river trail in exchange for permission to build taller towers than local regulations permit.
Developer Jeff Kozero will build the trail on a section of publicly owned land as part of the first phase of a massive development that will eventually span 18 waterfront acres between Washington Avenue and Reed Street. It will include 10 towers comprising nearly 2,000 residential units and a hotel. In addition to the public trail controlled by the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, Kozero plans to create 2.2 acres of public space.
The development, known as Liberty on the River, will rise behind the union hall of Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 on land purchased from the labor union. The latest plan for the sprawling site comes after years of negotiations with the Pennsport Civic Association and a controversial attempt to rezone the parcel for an even larger project.
“With this first [phase of] building, we are putting in all the public open space that has to be developed,” Stephen Pollock, the zoning attorney for Kozero’s company K4 Philadelphia LLC said at a Civic Design Review hearing last week. “We are going to bring connectivity over a piece of ground that has been private and bring the public to the river.”
The initial plan calls for a large mixed-use building containing three luxury apartment towers rising from a four-story base fitted out with retail, parking, and a smaller number of residential units. Renderings show 729 units in the building.
The project does not require any zoning changes under the city’s regulations for development on the waterfront, but its scale necessitated several height bonuses. Kozero negotiated with the DRWC to get an additional 72 feet of tower in exchange for building out the river trail across the length of the site.
K4 is also getting height bonuses for including 20,000 square feet of retail in the complex as well as the 2.2 acres of public space. But while the public amenities are part of the city’s vision for the Delaware River waterfront, planners questioned the market for the project’s 10 towers of luxury residences at the CDR hearing.
“We very much welcome mixed use and density on the waterfront and appreciate the phased approach to this project,” said Karen Thompson, director of planning for the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. “But we do still have concerns about the overall absorption rate of units on the waterfront.”
K4’s promise to connect the rest of the city to the river has dominated conversation about the project. Historically, the neighborhoods along the river have feared that new development could present a wall blocking sight lines and public access to the water.
Both the Planning Commission and the design professionals in the Civic Design Review board praised K4’s development for providing public access to the river, but they argued that the pedestrian access from Columbus Boulevard and green space still need more work. The pathways through the site don’t have many amenities or trees in the renderings, stoking concern that they might not prove sufficient to lure pedestrian across the intimidatingly high-speed Columbus Boulevard.
“The public space other than the trail seems a little undercooked, even in the renderings,” said Nancy Rogo Trainer, the head of the CDR board, last week. “There isn’t a lot there yet, it doesn’t seem like a place that people would want to go and hang out and be, even if they live in the towers. I think that piece of it could use more love.”
Trainer had kind words for other aspects of the project, including a plan to line the four-story base of the building with apartments so the second and third stories wouldn't simply be devoted to parking. But in the end she voted, with a majority of the board, to require K4 to return to the Civic Design Review board for another meeting. The board is only an advisory body and there is little leverage to compel the developer to heed their advice, especially in a case like this where zoning relief is not required.
K4’s team will also return to the board for subsequent phases of the development. Five more buildings are proposed, including two on piers that jut into the Delaware River, with seven more towers between them.
“Overall the [future] buildings will be eclectic,” said Seth Shapiro, one of K4’s architects. “We want it to look organic as it all evolves over time, so it looks less like one project and more of a piece of the city.”