WILL Philadelphia's ambitious new plan for the Delaware River waterfront become a reality - or will it be just another in a long series of busts? Will the 300,000 Philadelphians who live near the river finally get reconnected to it - or will we be denied yet again?
Like any good plan, the Master Plan projects out 10, 20, even 30 years or more. Only our children, or maybe their children, will know for sure if we really can stimulate economic development across this large swath of our city.
But I think that the issue just might be a whole lot simpler than that. There are many question marks and uncertainties, but maybe the biggest one could be put to rest with one event: someone who owns vacant waterfront land sells it to a new owner.
Let me explain: City Council has passed a new zoning code. It goes into effect Aug. 22. And by that time it's expected that the code will include a new zoning overlay for the Central Delaware waterfront. The new code requires that waterfront buildings be set back from the water's edge. And while the new overlay is still being drafted, it most likely will include rules that preserve waterfront view corridors and pedestrian and bike access by preventing developers from putting up buildings directly opposite key "connector streets" that intersect Delaware Avenue and Columbus Boulevard.
These two provisions lie at the heart of the Master Plan. They also seem to lie at the heart of frequent criticisms of the Plan by the Development Workshop, a collection of zoning attorneys and former city-planning officials now paid to advocate on behalf of some waterfront property owners. (We don't know exactly who pays them, because, with one exception, they won't tell us.)The Workshop argues that these provisions will diminish the value and marketability of property owners' land, making it harder to redevelop the waterfront.
Whether this objection is the prelude to a lawsuit, an attempt to torpedo the Master Plan or simply a bargaining chip meant to extract a pre-emptive monetary settlement for waterfront owners from our city's cash-strapped treasury is anyone's guess.
But if the new zoning code goes into effect, and the economy continues to improve (however slowly), and someone comes along and purchases one of these waterfront properties, then the entire argument becomes moot. For if properties start to change hands, then the market itself will have affirmed what advocates of the Master Plan already believe, and what William Penn and his investors proved 340 years ago: if you run a street right-of-way through a large parcel, you increase its street frontage, which can actually increase the value of the property and make it easier, not harder, to sell or develop.
So, all that has to happen is that first major sale. Then the Development Workshop can kindly take a seat, and our city's residents and developers can move forward knowing that while much uncertainty remains, we've cleared the first major hurdle to a better future for our waterfront.