Time was, Philadelphia scared off out-of-town developers with our convoluted (sometimes crooked) ways, leaving behind only insiders who could navigate our strange channels to build here. But recent years have been marked by robust planning and zoning reform, geared at bringing our development processes out of the dark ages. Yet recent news about waterfront development proposals and zoning code edits has us wondering if the city is having a hard time adjusting to all of that change.
The Master Plan for the Central Delaware is perhaps the best example of Philadelphia’s planning sea change. Thousands of people shaped the vision and ultimately the Master Plan was approved this year, to guide waterfront development for the foreseeable future. But three recent development proposals for the waterfront aren't looking so promising.
In a recent column about these proposed developments, Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron explains the tension this way:
A funny thing has happened in the three months since the planning commission approved that long-awaited waterfront plan. Housing developers have started heading down to the river again.
And, just as quickly, some of the plan's high-minded notions have been cast aside by city officials giddy at the prospect of new construction on the Delaware.
She's referring to the three proposals put forward by Louis Cicalese/Ensemble Real Estate for properties along the Delaware: Marina View (north of the Ben Franklin Bridge), at Pier 40 (by Waterfront Square), and Piers 34-35 (near Dockside). In each case the proposed buildings do not conform to the Master Plan’s height limits, and they do little to engage with or enhance their surroundings. They are largely development holdovers that date from before the bubble burst, which is to say before the Master Plan. (See Ensemble’s old plans for Pier 34 here, Pier 40 here, and Marina View here)
PlanPhilly’s Kellie Patrick Gates recently reported that members of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group fear that the city is not standing up for the Master Plan. CDAG Chair Matt Ruben said in regards to Marina View, “I think what we saw at the planning commission is a troubling sign…It takes will and fortitude, not to even say 'no,' but to say, 'not yet'.”
Meanwhile, City Council is already altering the new zoning code. PlanPhilly’s Jared Brey reported that the new zoning code will go into effect without edits that would have smoothed the administration of the new code, but with edits that favor the development community’s interests thanks to the Development Workshop’s persistence. Why? In part to send a message that City Council wanted more time with some of the more substantive edits from the Planning Commission.
Should we be thankful that a developer isn’t intimidated by building on the waterfront or should we be sticklers for the Master Plan's core principles and ask developers to adjust?
Should we be embarrassed that City Council treated the Planning Commission with greater suspicion than the developers or be content that the new zoning code represents a major advancement?