Developers Are Still Ignoring Philly’s Vision for the Waterfront

We won’t ever get a better waterfront if developers keep trying to flout the city’s master plan.


L: A photo of vacant waterfront land in South Philly today. (Photo by Jared Brey) R: A rendering from the city’s master plan for the Central Delaware.

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.

Sounds reasonable enough, and it’s not my personal belief that tall towers will ruin the experience of the waterfront. Still, the reason to respect zoning laws isn’t because they’re laws per se; it’s because, at least in theory, they are the only official expression of a public vision for development. Nowhere is that more true than on the Central Delaware. Coming up with a project that violates the waterfront master plan is a surefire way to piss off the many people who spent years of their lives negotiating viable development standards for the area.

“They’re basically thumbing their noses and saying we could not care less about this process and about this overlay and about this master plan,” said Matt Ruben, chairman of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, which helped create the plan and now serves as its primary defender.

Harris Steinberg, who led the waterfront planning process as director of PennPraxis, and who now runs the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel, said the K4 project is basically a “cut-and-paste” of Waterfront Square, just with “a little bit better urbanism.” It’s disconnected from the city, Steinberg said, and with the entrance placed right across from a highway exit, it’s designed around cars.

“This looks like it’s docked to the mothership of I-95,” Steinberg said.

(Interestingly, Kozero told me K4 is planning to provide shuttles into the city for residents who live in the project, and that he’s hoping residents of Pennsport will make use of the commercial space there.)

Other suspicions arise when a developer requests zoning changes for a project on a huge, undeveloped lot — suspicions that maybe the developer isn’t even planning to build the project, but just wants to cash in on the increased property value from the more permissive zoning, sell the property, and slide on down the road. Land speculation is certainly not foreign to the Delaware waterfront. The K4 proposal sounds extra suspicious, though, because the developers say they’re planning to build two towers that conform to the height restrictions first, and only need a zoning change in order to build the other eight towers later. But Kozero assured me that they’re in it for the long haul; they purchased the property, and they wanted to seek the zoning change now to be upfront with people about the scope of their plans, he said.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation has been working to build a trail that stretches the length of the waterfront. Karen Thompson, a planner with DRWC, said that the group has reviewed the K4 proposal and that the developers are negotiating in good faith to sell a portion of the property to be used as a segment of the trail. DRWC hasn’t taken a position on the development proposal yet.

“All things being equal, we have an overlay, and we prefer waterfront development to conform with that,” Thompson said.

The K4 project isn’t the only all-inclusive development proposal that ignores parts of the master plan. Earlier this year, plans were revealed for a residential development on an adjacent site that would be fronted by a grocery store and a gas station, awash in surface parking lots. The builder was Bart Blatstein, who is not exactly known for the modesty of his development ideas.

Blatstein told me last week that he’s still refining his plans for the site, which was once meant to be home to a Foxwoods casino. But the problem, he said, is that the site is cut off from the city by a six-lane road. Nobody’s going to want to live on the other side of it if they don’t have some commercial amenities nearby, he said. The area just isn’t walkable, despite the city’s dreams of walkable development, he said.

Let’s pause to give these developers a fair shake: Building anywhere is expensive and risky, and the waterfront presents a unique set of challenges that can make it even more difficult than development elsewhere in the city. It’s not hard to see why developers think they have to put everything on one site in order to convince people to live on the other side of Columbus Boulevard. But if builders keep thinking about each property in isolation, the waterfront’s going to remain an isolated place.

“You have to start with a project,” Steinberg said. “One project has to kind of be the template for the next.”

Next month will mark 10 years since former Mayor John Street signed an executive order setting in motion a new comprehensive waterfront plan, with the goal of creating a “civic vision for the Central Delaware that balances the public good, access to the waterfront, open space, and quality urban development.”

Today we have that vision, and it’s written down in the law. It would be great to see some developments that buy into it, rather than work around it.

Follow @JaredBrey on Twitter.