I once had the chance to tour Waterfront Square, the condominium complex on the Delaware River in Northern Liberties, between Sugarhouse Casino and the Festival Pier at Spring Garden Street. It was for a story I never ended up writing.
The three 25-story towers there are some of the tallest buildings on the waterfront, and the views near the top are, as realtors like to say, spectacular, but not just in the real-estate-listing sense. They also provide a better vantage of Philadelphia’s place in the region than most other big vistas you can find around the city. At that height, that close to the river, it becomes very plain why Philadelphia is where it is: There’s all this fresh water flowing down from the Catskills in an ever-widening channel that eventually dumps into the Delaware Bay. And at the wide mouth, boats coming from the Atlantic Ocean can enter the river and float upstream as far as the river is deep enough to carry them. Philadelphia is well-positioned to take advantage of all of that. There are good views of Old City and broad swaths of New Jersey, and the city appears related to its surroundings in a way that it rarely does from other viewpoints.
Unfortunately, the experience on the ground is the opposite of that. The complex feels disconnected from the rest of the city, and to get back into the flow you have to leave through a mechanical gate. A few years after Waterfront Square was built, the city adopted a plan with the input of hundreds of Philadelphians that was meant to guide the development of the waterfront and improve its connections to the rest of the city. The Central Delaware Master Plan encouraged a mix of residential and commercial buildings, greater walkability, and public access to the riverfront. It discouraged parking lots and excessively tall buildings. It was hailed as forward-thinking and consensus-based, and it was codified into law with a special set of zoning standards crafted specifically for the waterfront.
Of course, even now, developers don’t always feel compelled by things like master plans or zoning laws. And there’s evidence that the waterfront is still seen as a blank canvas, despite the very clear, very earnest guidelines written right there in the law.
Earlier this month, the Inquirer reported that a developer is hoping to build a property on Columbus Boulevard with up to 2,000 apartments in 10 residential towers, most of which would exceed the height limit for the waterfront. The plans would require City Council to approve a bill easing the height limits on that site, which is between Washington Avenue and Reed Street. Jeffrey Kozero of K4 Associates, the group that is planning to build the project, said over the phone last week that he is hoping to create a self-contained community, attractive and amenity-rich enough to draw a critical mass of people to live on the waterfront. K4 doesn’t need the extra height to make the project work financially, but Kozero said it will make the project much more liveable than if the developers put all the square footage they believe they need into shorter buildings. With taller towers, there’s more open space. Read more »