Changing Skyline: Waterfront agency strengthens review process

Posted: October 06, 2012

Troubled by Philadelphia's recent approval of three controversial apartment houses, the agency responsible for the new Delaware waterfront master plan voted Thursday to strengthen its process for reviewing new buildings along Columbus Boulevard.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC), the independent agency that governs the central Delaware, will immediately set up a design review committee for evaluating proposals before they go to the Planning Commission, to determine whether they comply with master plan standards.

But the agency's board acknowledges that its influence will be limited because developers are not legally obligated to submit their plans for review.

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 said during Thursday's meeting of the board's 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 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 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 Blvd., 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.

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 cannot 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 persuade developers to take its advice. "I will define success as making projects better," she added.

Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, or on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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