Developer Bart Blatstein is encountering headwinds in his quest to bring hoagies and gasoline to South Philadelphia’s Delaware River waterfront.
The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections said in a notice last week that it had turned down Blatstein’s application for gas pumps as part of what is said to be a “super Wawa” convenience store project on part of a riverside tract that he owns between Reed and Tasker Streets, citing area zoning that prohibits fueling stations.
L&I’s refusal notice sets up Blatstein’s 21-acre property, which he acquired following a failed effort to build a Foxwoods casino on the site, as the next battleground in a fight over zoning guidelines known as the Central Delaware Overlay. Backers of those rules say they are needed to help reconnect central Philadelphia with its eastern waterfront.
To get his work permits, Blatstein now needs either to convince the city’s zoning board that the property can’t be otherwise profitably developed, in hope of being granted a variance, or to get City Council to change the guidelines for the area that includes his site.
City Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district includes the site, said in an email that he had not taken steps to help Blatstein overcome his zoning hurdle after “the super Wawa was not supported by the community” in the neighboring Pennsport section.
The plans are also said to include a branch of the German supermarket chain Lidl and other retailers, as well as hundreds of homes.
“I’m very excited about the opportunity to create the first true mixed-use development on the waterfront,” Blatstein said in an interview, declining to discuss particulars of the project, including specific occupants.
Earlier this year, Squilla proposed legislation that would have altered the waterfront overlay rules to enable another developer, K4 Associates LLC, to build towers exceeding the currently permitted heights on land just north of Blatstein’s parcel.
He had Council delay consideration of his bill to incorporate feedback from opponents of the change, such as the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, (CDAG), a coalition of river-adjacent community groups. Critics said Squilla’s proposal unfairly disregarded the overlay, which was adopted in 2013 after months of negotiation among landowners, open-space advocates, and neighborhood associations.
The goal of the rules is to stop projects such as strip malls that discourage pedestrian access to the river, which already is separated from the rest of the city by I-95 and other impediments, proponents say. Some of those strip centers, such as Riverview Plaza and Columbus Crossing on Columbus Boulevard, were developed by Blatstein.
CDAG chairman Matt Ruben said the Wawa plan would similarly undermine the goal of fostering foot traffic between the waterfront and adjacent neighborhoods.
“Our starting point has to be, if this is not permitted by the overlay, there’s a good reason,” he said.
A representative of the developer’s Tower Investments Inc. earlier this year informally presented plans that included a large Wawa store with gas pumps to the Pennsport Civic Association, a neighborhood organization whose boundaries encompass Blatstein’s site, Patrick Fitzmaurice, the group’s president, said. Members of the group voiced concerns after the presentation that a big gas station would worsen traffic on Columbus Boulevard, Fitzmaurice said.
Wawa did not immediately respond to an email seeking a reaction to the plan’s refusal. The convenience store chain is presumably depending on Tower to obtain all necessary zoning clearances and use permits as a condition of the property’s lease or sale, according to people familiar with such transactions.
The Wawa is planned for a 1.4-acre-section of Blatstein’s large waterfront tract, near the corner of Columbus Boulevard and Tasker Street. The developer acquired the property in 2014 after its previous owners failed to win a license for the casino.
Site preparation on what permits identify as a grocery store has been underway on a section of the property to the north at Reed Street. Fitzmaurice said the market was identified as one of the stores planned by Lidl Stiftung & Co. KG as part of its U.S. expansion.
A Lidl spokesman did not immediately respond to a message asking about plans for the site.
Plans for the remainder of the tract call for smaller retailers, including a proposed Chipotle Mexican Grill, a Five Guys burger shop, and a Supercuts quick-service hair salon, according to a brochure on the website of brokerage MSC Retail, which is marketing space on the property. Images in the brochure show a parking lot for these retailers that extends to the sidewalk of Columbus Boulevard, a feature that is also prohibited by the Central Delaware Overlay rules.
Also planned are about 670 apartments and townhouses on a river-facing section of the land, according to the brochure. William J. Collins, cofounder of Bethesda, Md.-based developer Concordia Group, said his company, whose projects include the Southwark on Reed rowhouse tract in South Philadelphia, had discussed acquiring that piece of the property from Blatstein this year, but the talks concluded without a deal.