DN Editorial: Editorial: Delaware waterfront deserves better than big boxes

Posted: October 12, 2012

THE MACHINE holding the most danger for the city is not, as some might think, the political machine. It's the wayback machine - that contraption that whooshes us to the past and ensures that we never do things any different from how we have for years.

Over the past few years, the city has avoided a fair number of trips to the past - approving a new zoning code for example, was significant step into the future - although thanks to the wayback machine we still enjoy such relics as walking-around money, patronage jobs, backroom deal-making, a corrupted property-tax system and a paucity of women in elected office, to name just a few.

We were dismayed when the ghost of the wayback machine emerged a few weeks ago, with the approval of high-rise housing projects on the Delaware River waterfront that are counter to well-crafted guidelines for waterfront development that make up the central Delaware master plan.

That plan, created over a few years and adopted by the city in 2011, was a watershed moment for the Delaware - providing a thoughtful blueprint for connecting the city to the river and finally taking advantage of the city's valuable waterfront real estate. It detailed what buildings and other development should aim for in height, design and use for the benefit of the public.

The rationale for the recent approvals - projects that were bigger than the master plan suggested and fell short of design ideals - was that they would spur further development. That compromise was undoubtedly the rationale for the building of Walmart and Home Depot on the waterfront. Unfortunately, the development those projects spurred was more of the same: big-box stores like Lowe's and Ikea. Which are good if you need a hammer or a bookcase, but not such great uses for the kind of valuable real estate that demands complexity and thought and should have people at its center.

The people-centric part of the master plan was its triumph - the result of countless meetings and thousands of citizens who defined what they wanted from a waterfront that has historically been squandered or ignored.

The master plan is a blueprint for higher standards than a development-starved city has typically enforced. The Planning Commission's approval of the newest projects don't meet those standards. That's disappointing.

Yet, there is a bright side to the latest episode: in past years, such approvals would have garnered little notice until a building was completed. This time, the Central Delaware Advocacy Group was engaged with developers' proposals from the beginning, and pushed for changes.

And the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., formed to manage waterfront design and development, has established a design-review committee that will give its reaction to proposed projects on the Delaware. The DRWC doesn't have teeth to enforce its recommendations, but the Planning Commission should take them seriously.

The city as a whole and the Delaware waterfront in particular belong in the 21st century and beyond. We should keep both out of the wayback machine.

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