Blatstein plan for old Foxwoods tract includes gas station, strip mall

The Center City skyline as seen from the trail through the site where Bart Blatstein plans a shopping and residential project.
The Center City skyline as seen from the trail through the site where Bart Blatstein plans a shopping and residential project. (JACOB ADELMAN / Staff)
Posted: February 05, 2016

Plans for central Philadelphia's eastern waterfront call for bike- and pedestrian-friendly trails, sprawling green spaces, and dense blocks of housing over street-enlivening shops and restaurants.

Add to that now a big new convenience store with gas pumps, strip-mall retail, and lots of parking.

That's what developer Bart Blatstein has in mind for part of the property he owns along the Delaware River in South Philadelphia where a Foxwoods casino had once been planned.

Blatstein's proposal, which recently came to light in an online presentation by real estate brokerage MSC Retail, calls for a shopping plaza, apartments and townhouses, and parkland on the 21-acre parcel along Columbus Boulevard.

Critics say the plan's retail portion would require a major exception from zoning regulations, while setting back efforts to enliven the waterfront with increased foot traffic.

"It's a regression, not a progression," said Drexel University planning expert Harris Steinberg, who led a committee that devised a master plan for the central Delaware waterfront nearly a decade ago. "This is just more car-oriented development."

Blatstein rejected that characterization and said his plan would result in the more walkable environment that the area's zoning is meant to encourage.

"A large residential community cannot exist successfully without commercial and retail services," he said. "The commercial and retail services are the infrastructure that helps build the larger community."

The plan for the property on MSC's website shows boxy retail buildings - including a "proposed Wawa" and a "proposed Aldi" supermarket - and a shopping strip spread over a parking lot.

MSC broker Jason Bock, who helped Blatstein devise the plan, said the Wawa would be a "super" version of the convenience store with a gas station.

"This is going to be an urban development that's going to look like a suburban development," Bock said.

Aldi Inc. spokeswoman Erica Hoey said the grocer has no plans for the location. Wawa Inc. did not reply to an email. Bock said he is in talks with the companies and has gotten so much interest from other potential retail tenants that the plan may be tweaked to include more shops, with less housing.

For some, the plan recalls past decades' development on the South Philadelphia waterfront that turned Columbus Boulevard into a strip of shopping centers, such as the Blatstein-developed Riverview Plaza and Columbus Crossing complexes.

That was before the 2013 adoption of a zoning overlay for the central Delaware riverfront that prohibits such development, with street-adjacent parking lots and gas stations specifically off-limits.

The overlay sought to stop projects that discourage pedestrian access to the river, which is already separated from the rest of the city by I-95 and other impediments.

But Blatstein's plan "replicates many of the unfortunate design features of the strip malls and big-box stores that currently plague this end of the waterfront," said Lizzie Woods, a planner for the nonprofit Delaware River Waterfront Corp (DRWC).

City Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district includes the proposed development site, said through an aide that he declined a request by Blatstein to intervene before the plan was publicly vetted.

Scorn for the project is not universal. Jim Moylan, chairman of the Pennsport Civic Association, said he was open to - if not enthralled by - what he's seen of the plan so far.

"We're just happy to see progressive steps toward making it no longer be an empty eyesore," said Moylan, whose group would likely vet the proposal as part of the permit process.

The plan also calls for 670 apartment and townhouse units between the shopping plaza and a strip of park along the river that is part of a waterfront recreation area DRWC is developing.

DRWC has already secured riverfront parcels to the north and south of Blatstein's site, but negotiations to acquire the segment on his parcel have been stalled since November, Woods said.

That delay could stoke suspicions that Blatstein is using the land in a push for the shopping center, said Matt Ruben, chief of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, a riverfront neighborhood alliance.

"He wouldn't want anyone in the public to mistakenly think he was holding that waterfront setback hostage to try to get what he wants for this development project," Ruben said.

Blatstein said the issue was more complicated than that.

"In spirit, I am for the river trail," he said. "In reality, it would be sold for a fraction of the market value of the property and there are a lot of details to be worked out."

jadelman@phillynews.com

215-854-2615@jacobadelman

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