By Matt Blanchard
About fifty developers, property owners and real estate attorneys jammed a conference room at the Penn’s Landing Corp. offices on Tuesday to hear PennPraxis director Harris Steinberg detail his vision for the waterfront.
There is probably no more influential audience: An estimated 95 percent of riverfront land along the seven-mile central Delaware riverfront is privately-owned.
And there is no tougher audience. When a man has tens of millions of dollars riding on a development deal, “visionary planning” can sound like a dangerous pastime. There are more than a dozen such deals, mostly condo towers, pending along the river.
So Steinberg began cautiously.
“I know this is a suspicious crowd. I know there’s great fear that we’ll wave our wand, and city council will vote in a plan that will take your property,” he said.
“But this is not an anti-development plan. This plan is about development … The elements we’re about to show you will increase the value of your land.”
At its core, the PennPraxis plan calls for the extension of Philadelphia’s dense street grid to the river’s edge. The huge parcels along the river today would be broken up into blocks no larger than 420’ by 240’. With the application of certain design guidelines, this restored city grid will grow into a lively, walk-able and gracious series of neighborhoods.
Auto-oriented uses such as Home Depot in South Philadelphia would eventually give way to what Steinberg imagines as a “Rittenhouse on the river.” That means buildings that meet the sidewalk, active retail uses on the first floor, ample mass transit, and parking that’s either hidden or off-site.
“We’re talking about a dense, creative, interesting grid that will knit the city back together in a way that is vibrant, vital and alive,” Steinberg said.
Commissioned by Mayor Street, the Praxis plan was developed over months of public design sessions. It represents the collective aspirations of the 3,500 Philadelphians who took part. The plan is due on the mayor’s desk in its final form by November.
Tuesday’s meeting was brokered by Councilman Frank DiCicco, who repeatedly mentioned one major benefit of getting on board: Since the community already supports the civic vision, agreeing to follow it means no more lengthy and unpredictable negotiations with community groups.
“You all know what the challenges of dealing with the community are; community associations have become very aware of their power,” DiCicco said. “We’re saying, ‘Do community planning on the front end, as opposed to on the back end.’”
The big pill of the Praxis plan seemed to go down slowly. No one jumped up to embrace the planners. Neither did anyone storm out of the room.
Real estate attorney Michael Sklaroff of Ballard Spahr and developer Lou Cicalese were the first to sound off, expressing anxiety that sudden changes to zoning on the waterfront could jeopardize major development deals.
“The ideals you've proposed are really quite admirable,” said Cicalese, the developer of a condo tower slated for Pier 40. “But is it property specific?”
A rush to enact Praxis design guidelines into zoning law might have a deleterious effect on property values, Cicalese said, and could create project delays costing millions. "Many of us have properties that are far along in the development process.”
DiCicco countered that a zoning overlay would create a more streamlined way for the developers to move projects along. He also said a zoning overlay would not affect projects that were already approved.
Craig Schelter, a planner who represents development interests, questioned the feasibility of the plan, calling it “Alice in Wonderland,” and warning that it might “raise a false expectation.”
But afterwards, an unscientific sampling of attendees revealed warm feelings for the Praxis plan. No one disputed the ultimate goals.
Daniel Gans of Hoboken Brownstone Co. has one of the largest project proposals pending, a four-tower condominium project near Delaware Avenue and Spring Garden Street totaling 1,050 housing units.
“I’m excited about plan, and I believe strongly that a plan is needed,” he said.
A native of North Jersey, Gans said he was surprised by the willy-nilly, case-by-case zoning that goes on in Philadelphia. Up in Jersey they call it “spot zoning,” he said, and it’s illegal. If the Praxis plan can establish ground rules for developers and community groups alike, Gans said he’s behind it.
“And I think it does give you more value,” Gans said of Steinberg’s grid plan. “I’m an urbanite, so I really believe it has to have that urban feeling, it has to be attached to the community, and give people access to the river.”
Gans said the plan’s major elements – the grid, the boulevard and the waterfront trail – are right on target.
“These are the buzzwords of urban development today” he said.
Riverfront Trail Could Appear by Spring
Seeking to establish an early-action item on the river, Center City District head Paul Levy is putting together funds for a 4-mile bike trail along the Delaware River that could be open by the fall. Described as a "quick and dirty interim trail," the route would make use of existing roads and paths, employing jersey barriers and other low-cost elements to shield pedestrians from the traffic. Levy said it would begin near Home Depot at Columbus and Tasker, extending north to Cumberland Street in Port Richmond, with the possibility of bicycle and skate rental kiosks along the length. Priced at around $400,000, the trail is more than an investment in recreation; it's an investment in public opinion. "The more people out there using the riverfront, the more we have a constituency for public amenities on the waterfront," Levy said.
DiCicco sees kibosh coming down on casino move
While meeting with developers on Tuesday, Councilman Frank DiCicco laid down the hardest line yet on the suggestion by community groups that the casinos should be relocated from their current sites.
“If you haven’t already figured it out, they will be built on the locations that are now proposed,”
DiCicco told the crowd of 50 developers, land owners and attorneys. “Despite what you have heard about re-siting, that will not happen.”
DiCicco won the reputation as a champion of neighborhood rights when he introduced legislation to establish a 1500-foot buffer separating Foxwoods and Sugarhouse casinos from any residence, school or church. As recently as July, he was raising hopes of a City Council committee to explore alternative sites where casinos could move.
But on Tuesday, the man who once said “we might have to live with these projects” seemed to believe the matter was entirely settled.
Dawn Tancredi Mattioni, LTD.
Scott Schwarz Mattioni, LTD.
John Mattioni Mattioni, LTD.
Steve Labov NCCB Associates
Peter Maggio U.S. Realty
Greg Bianchi U.S. Realty
Janice Woodcock PCPC
Norm Marcus Waterfront Sq. Home. Assoc.
Michael Yaron Yaron Properties
Doron Geffand Waterfront Square
Larry Kronick Delilah’s
Karen Black May 8 Consulting
Michael Sklaroff Ballard Spahr
Michael Weaver DePaul Group
David Bartynsky DePaul Group
Bruce S. Nobile Cedar Shopping Centers
Robert Mastandrea Cedar Shopping Centers
Daniel Gans Hoboken Brownstone
Annemarie Tuffner Local resident
Pat Hynes Waterfront Square
Leigh Whitaker Sugarhouse Casino
Kevin Feeley Bellevue Communications
Louis Cicalese DRDG
Marc F. Stein Bridgeman’s View
Terry McKenna Keating/HSP Gaming
Nick Walsh PRPA
Dan DeRitis Club Risque
Michael Fluehr Hot Logistics
Ted Pagano 1700 Columbus Assoc..
Robert Racciath 1700 Columbus Assoc.
Thomas Chapman Blank Rome
Nando Micale WRT
Ray Tarnowski Phila WHSE and Cold Storage
Ryan Roberts BVT
Carl Engelke Eagle Eye Solutions
Joe Forkin Penn's Landing Corp
Bob Sheldon HSP Gaming
Nicholas Forema LMM Assoc
James Templeton H2L2/BVT
Rich Lombardo Ballard Spahr
Ed McBride PECO
Paul Levy Center City District
Joseph Brooks Penn's Landing Corp
Craig Schelter Schelter and Associates
Jim Anderson JJA Construction Co.
Chris Finley Goldenberg Group
Frank DiCicco Phila. Councilman
Brian Abernathy DiCicco legislative aide
Harris Steinberg Penn Praxis
Michael Greenle Penn Praxis