DRWC board member Marilyn Jordan Taylor, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's design school, said she was not worried about the lack of a mandate.
"I've seen the voluntary process work before," she argued during Thursday's meeting of its executive committee. "I think we can be effective ... If developers don't listen to us, we can still make our objections known by testifying at the Planning Commission."
The concept of design review has grown in popularity across the U.S. as cities look for ways to exert more influence over the quality and aesthetics of new architecture. Most planning and zoning codes regulate such things as a building's height, bulk, site coverage and type of use - not facade materials or aesthetic composition. Philadelphia's planning commission has been considering the creation of its own design review committee for years.
The recent surge in new construction along the Delaware has added urgency to the issue. Philadelphia has spent almost a decade trying to nurture a new residential neighborhood on the waterfront, and the master plan is intended to ensure that its buildings meet high standards.
Yet the first three projects that came before the Planning Commission all failed to meet the plan's most basic recommendations. They were all approved.
Taylor said she was particularly disturbed by the design for an apartment house at 230 N. Columbus Boulevard, next to the majestic stone abutment of the Ben Franklin Bridge.
The 11-story mid-rise, known as Marina View, will be taller and more car-focused than the master plan recommends. Its ground floor will also be largely obscured by a retaining berm. "I think the site plan could have been so much better," Taylor said.
The DRWC testified against the project during a Planning Commission meeting, and several commission members also expressed concern about the design.
In approving the project, commissioners argued that even a flawed design could help jump-start residential development on the river.
While the DRWC can't force its views, it plans to invite prospective developers to meet with the new design review committee. The intent, Taylor said, is to start a conversation early, before the design is fully formed.
Because the meetings are considered working sessions, Taylor said they will not be open to the public. The committee does, however, expect to invite "stakeholders," such as members of neighborhood groups, to participate in the negotiating sessions.
Taylor said the agency will have to use the power of persuasion to convince developers to take its advice. "I will define 'success' as making projects better," she added.
Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ingasaffron.