Tweet: Is Waterfront AAA Project in Pennsport Back On?

It looks like the "long and interesting saga" is starting up again.

Remember that controversial AAA service and sales center planned near the Delaware River waterfront on Columbus Boulevard? After months of little to no movement on its status due to ongoing legal battles, an eagle-eyed tweeter put us on to some news: It looks like construction has started on the site. Signs hung facing the street read “AAA Opening Soon Auto Repair You Can Trust” and there is a bunch of equipment in the lot.

Permits pulled in mid-March confirm that this thing is happening:


The background of the project can be described as confusing at best. AAA filed for the permits to construct the auto-oriented project under a temporary Central Delaware Waterfront zoning overlay, which required a Plan of Development (POD) to be presented for the project. Literally the next day, the permanent overlay came into effect in which auto-oriented development isn’t permitted. The POD then happened well out of sequence, permits were granted by L&I, then taken away, then appealed and later denied – in short, it’s been a big damn mess.

Dr. James Moylan, president of the Pennsport Civic Association, one of the groups in opposition to the project, said he hasn’t been contacted by anyone regarding the new construction and found out about the work the same way he found out about it the first time around–by accident: “This is two times now that I’m finding these things out by pure happenstance, just by driving by [the site].”  Moylan is referring to the original issue, when he said he didn’t know that contractors were demolishing the buildings on the site for the auto repair facility–which prompted the civic association to file a last-second appeal of the project. Moylan said that it’s not about AAA as a business (“I’ve done nothing but say I love AAA.”), but rather the intended use for the site as an auto-repair facility on the river side of Columbus Boulevard, saying it “flies directly in the face” of the overlay.

Attorney Carl Primavera, who is part of the team representing AAA, called it “a long and interesting saga” and confirmed that the company is “moving to complete the construction” plans that were approved a year ago–an auto repair facility offering traditional AAA services like insurance and travel assistance. While some appeals are still pending, Primavera said that a judge recently ruled in AAA’s favor and restored the construction permits. “What you see is a reflection of what you want to see,” said Primavera. “I see it as a great AAA location, someone sees it otherwise.”

In moving forward with the construction during ongoing legal cases, it seems that AAA is confident that this matter is going to get worked out. “It’s always a risk,” said Primavera. Losing the appeal of the zoning variance would mean AAA couldn’t operate as a garage on the site, meaning they will have wasted a ton of money and time in constructing a building they can’t use.

Here's the site at 1601 S. Columbus Blvd. |Photo: James Jennings

Here’s the site at 1601 S. Columbus Blvd. |Photo: James Jennings

The crux of it all is the location, an element that both helps and hurts the case for the new facility. Primavera argues that this use is in line–in fact, it’s more “retail”–than the neighboring big box stores like Walmart and Home Deport in Pier 70. It’s also more “elegant” and “contemporary” than the gas station, car wash and strip clubs across Columbus Boulevard. The big box stores are actually on the water, noted Primavera–”Why pick on this little corner that is not even on the water?”

On the flip side of things, it is on the river side of Columbus Boulevard and at the mouth of what the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC) thinks could be the southern connector street from the Delaware River Trail (Pier 53 through Pier 68) into the neighborhood of Pennsport.  “We don’t think it’s in keeping with the master plan for that area,” said Karen Thompson, planner with DRWC, this week. “We were opposed to it and are still opposed to it.”

After all, the current overlay prohibits the use. Even the temporary iteration required the POD, which was later rejected by the Planning Commission. “If you can’t depend upon an accurate application of the zoning code in reviewing permits, then there is no law,” said Matt Ruben, chair of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group. “It is important that every city agency involved in permit review has to buckle down to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

With three ongoing legal battles, there’s no telling when this muddled mess might get resolved.