November 3, 2019
One of Philadelphia’s greatest natural and cultural resources is the Delaware River waterfront, and after a lot of debate our City has developed and adopted a beautiful vision of what it can be. But we keep poking ourselves in the eye. What we have imagined as a ribbon of walkable neighborhoods of houses and shopping, interspersed with public parks and linked by a public waterfront trail, is shaping up as a highway lined by gated communities, service stations, and big box stores. And all this is legal.
The biggest disappointment to date is the approval of plans for the 30-acre site along the river in Fishtown and Port Richmond, where the William Cramp & Sons Shipbuilding Company built ships for the navies of the world for more than a century. The design for this tract, with its stunning views across the river to bucolic Petty Island and downstream to the Center City skyline, comprises four seven-story apartment buildings (with 850 units) and 248 rowhouses. At first this sounds like it could be one of the “new, low- to mid-rise, dense and walkable residential neighborhoods” prescribed by the Master Plan for the Central Delaware, which was adopted by the City Planning Commission in 2012 after several years of productive public dialogue and visioning exercises. But a good look at the site plan shows something different.
The proposal presented by the Bethesda, Md.-based Concordia Group, Philadelphia’s D3 Real Estate Development, and the Resmark Companies of Los Angeles is for a cluster of stumpy apartment buildings and hundreds of rowhouses inelegantly packed on 13 narrow, private greens with car access to private garages on dead-end cul-de sacs. This “neighborhood” will only be reachable from the rest of the city by two automobile-oriented roadways, with public access to the waterfront limited to a narrow riverside trail, fenced off from the new residential area. Inhabitants will have their own, private river walk, inside the fence. The public trail will dead end at the south boundary of the site until “something” happens there.
The proposed rowhouses are handsome contemporary designs, but their arrangement on the site is inept. Astonishingly, none of these tall, four-story houses is oriented to face the river, which can only be glimpsed by craning one’s neck to look down one of the 20-foot wide alleys or 38-foot “fingers” of lawn that alternately lead to the water. And half of those narrow passages are bent—denying even a glimpse of the Delaware. To be sure, each rowhouse has a rooftop deck, from which the 248 home-owning families will be able to view the sun as it sets over I-95—a communal experience. It’s not better for the residents of the apartment buildings. Very few of the units will have a view of anything except a neighbors’ apartment or the adjacent rowhouses. About a third of the tenants will look out into interior courtyards, and because the buildings are so short and closely spaced, even the outward-facing units will not get much of a view.
The only “public” space in this community is the “Central Park,” buried in the middle of the rowhouse development, which astonishingly gets narrower as it approaches the river—as though to deny the existence the Delaware. The adjacent “community center” is dedicated to unspecified purposes. Why not focus the development on a riverfront park, with a boat landing, restaurant, and shops--and made accessible to all with parking and public transit? That would honor the spirit of the Planning Commission masterplan, which suggested a public park and kayak launching site at the north end of this site.
All this disappointing mess is legal. It meets current zoning regulations, and it was approved by our weak Design Review process—which, although only advisory, might have called attention to the deficiencies of this design.
What can we do? Our best shot is to tighten up the zoning “overlay” that governs central Delaware development. It can be beefed up to require genuine public access and pedestrian-oriented and river-facing design, and it can be loosened (a little) to allow taller buildings—and, with that, more open space and better views. The proposal now being put forward by Councilman Mark Squilla and the City Planning Commission is a move in the right direction, but need to do more to protect our vision of a great city that is connected to its river.
David B. Brownlee, Co Vice Chair, Design Advocacy Group
On Behalf of the DAG Steering Committee