AAA’s waterfront plan rejected by Planning Commission


Proposed AAA Location

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) has rejected AAA’s plan to open a travel/insurance/car repair shop at 1601 S. Columbus Avenue in Pennsport, because the proposal is too auto-centric and otherwise detrimental to the city’s long-range goals for the waterfront.

Central Delaware Advocacy Group Chairman Matt Ruben said it was especially gratifying that PCPC’s staff recommendation was so strongly against the proposal. It showed what a clear-cut case this was, he said.

AAA attorney Carl Primavera said little about this case is clear, and a lawsuit is inevitable. AAA and the owner of the land have both spent too much money and time on this project, based on the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections issuance of a zoning permit. L&I and City Planning have since said that permit was issued in error, but Primavera said planning staffers reviewed and approved the AAA plan before L&I issued the permit.

Before the vote, representatives of the quasi-city agency that oversaw development of the Central Delaware Master Plan, CDAG and the Pennsport Civic Association all said – as they’ve said all along – that a driver-focused business would hamper the city’s goals and residents’ wishes to ease pedestrian and cyclist traffic, and link walkers and cyclists with the waterfront.

AAA representatives said they have heard and addressed community and planning concerns by reducing the number of driving entrances to the site from four to two – one curb cut each on Columbus Avenue and Tasker Street. They’ve added trees, and pushed the building up to the street from where it used to be in the center of the site. The parking that once surrounded the building is now behind it.

PCPC Chairman and Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger said he supported the staff recommendation not to approve, and letting this project go forward could prevent more appropriate development later.

Commissioner Pat Eiding said he did not like denying the property owner and AAA the right to move forward when the kind of changes the master plan calls for are years away for that area.  He also noted his long-standing concern that the overlay would hamper the ability to create new businesses and jobs.  Eiding abstained, while all other commissioners voted against the proposal.

The AAA proposal met strong community opposition from the start. It also had Pennsport residents and waterfront advocates questioning how well L&I applies the city’s own zoning rules.

AAA was first granted an over-the-counter zoning permit by L&I. Pennsport discovered this when workers began tearing down buildings on the site, which were formerly occupied by a construction company.

The use isn’t allowed by right under the current Central Delaware Overlay. When told that the permit was applied for the day before the current overlay went into effect, Pennsport – and later the Central Delaware Advocacy Group – asked that the permit be revoked, because the terms of the interim overlay that was in place at that time weren’t enforced by L&I either.

At first L&I said they couldn’t revoke a permit and told Pennsport to appeal it. But then L&I reversed its position and told AAA to either re-apply under the new overlay and seek zoning relief or file a Plan of Development (POD) for PCPC consideration, as the old overlay required. AAA’s decision to file that POD is what brought them before the PCPC.

Ruben called for a “full accounting” of how the permit came to be issued in error. “The entire Master Plan and overlay, all of it, the entire Philadelphia zoning code, depends on proper handling of permit applications,” he said. “If permit applications aren’t handled properly, then there is no law.”


250 apartments planned for site near Ben Franklin Bridge

1 Water Street model; Varenhorst, architect

Proposed Rendering for One Water Street

Waterfront advocates say Central Delaware Overlay and base zoning are not too restrictive

PMC Property Group hopes to break ground on a 250-unit apartment building at 230 N. Columbus Blvd. – near the Ben Franklin Bridge – this July.  The $65 million project, called 1 Water Street calls for 166 one-bedroom and 84 two-bedroom apartments, although there is still discussion about three-bedroom units as well.

The grounds will include two public green spaces, with the majority of the building back 25 feet from the sidewalk.  It will not just be a sidewalk, but a green space with a water feature and built in benches, according to developer PMC Property Group. The setback will accommodate a series of 18-inch retaining walls that will be used to raise the building above the floodplain.

A green roof is planned for the project. It includes 73 parking spaces, and with the expectation of car-share spots. There will be a bicycle storage room, gym, and meeting space for building residents.

Ten percent of the 250 apartments – 25 of them – will be reserved for lower-income residents. The rents will be lower for those apartments, PMC Executive Vice President Jonathan Stavin said, but the rental rate has not be determined.

On Water Street and Columbus,  PMC is offering the larger-than-required public spaces and mixed-income component of the project in exchange for height bonuses. The project is within the Central Delaware Overlay district, which limits height to 100 feet unless

CDAG has embraced 1 Water Street as its poster project for development-by-right under the permanent version of the Central Delaware Zoning Overlay and the underlying zoning, CMX-4.  “They are meeting and exceeding the open space requirements. It is taller than 100 feet, but they are using two formulas to get themselves a height bonus,” Schiavo noted.

He said the building may be taller than what some would prefer, but it does not exceed the density ratio allowed by CMX-4. “It’s not an overbuild.”  The proposal presents as two structures, and it’s the taller, 16-story one that’s about 170 feet, Schiavo said. About half of the parking is beneath the 13-story building, half is exposed to the sky, but screened so that it’s not visible from the street, he said.

CDAG will be sending a letter of support for the project to Civic Design Review, Schiavo said, and will be using the letter to highlight the possibilities for by-right development under waterfront zoning. “The conclusion we came to is that you can actually build in the area of the Central Delaware given the current zoning code and overlay and build a project that requires no variances,” Schiavo said. “This project proves the current zoning overlay and current code work.”

Stavin said designing a project under waterfront zoning was not difficult. “We found that the overlay made a lot of sense given some of the constraints you would have with foundations near the river,” he said. “The height (cap) seemed more than adequate to get the density we needed to make development feasible” since there are several bonus plans available. “We were able to achieve everything we needed to achieve.”

Stavin said his company doesn’t generally do waterfront development, but this parcel was attractive because of its proximity to Old City and “a combination of improvements made by the city of Philadelphia – the Race Street Pier, the pedestrian walkway down Race Street – and the success of private developments such as Morgan’s Pier and the new FringeArts building.”

Apartments will be available about 18 months after construction begins, Stavin said.



Philadelphia loses a waterfront advocate


Steven A. Weixler

Steven A. Weixler, an award-winning interior designer and staunch advocate for his Society Hill neighborhood and the Central Delaware Waterfront, died in late April, following a years-long battle with a neurological disorder.

“Anytime somebody walks to Race Street Pier and enjoys that, or goes to a performance at the FringeArts building across the street, or enjoys Washington Avenue Green, or years from now, when someone walks over the new Penn’s Landing that’s going to come and take shape … anyone who experiences any of that should think of Steve,” said Matt Ruben, who followed Weixler as chairman of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group.

Weixler was born in Louisville, KY, and studied architecture at the University of Louisville, but spent much of his 60 years working and volunteering in Greater Philadelphia. He founded WPL Interior Design – that W stands for Weixler – where he was noted for a remarkable talent with lighting and renderings so beautiful that his partners plan to keep framed examples on the walls.

Preservation of Society Hill’s historic architecture was important to Weixler, who led Society Hill Civic’s zoning and historic preservation committee before becoming its president for nearly three terms. In the past year, SHCA Vice President Jim Moss often served as acting president, but as sick as he was, Weixler came to at least two of SHCA’s large quarterly meetings at the Pennsylvania Hospital auditorium, Moss said. “It was clear to me, to anyone who knew him well, that Steve was in great distress,” Moss said.  “He presided, and then he had to leave and visit the emergency room.” That, Moss said, is evidence of how much Society Hill meant to him. “He was dedicated, and determined and resolute.”

Moss said Weixler saw development as positive, provided it was “the right kind of development, appropriate for a historical district.”

They worked together on many controversial proposals, but the biggest, figuratively and literally, was the failed Stamper Square, Moss said. Society Hill fought the 42-story tower originally proposed. In the end, it was finances that did the project in, and the huge parcel at 410 Front Street  remained vacant despite its prime location in a desirable neighborhood. Toll Brothers is now building a condominium complex at the site, with public, open space that Weixler helped shape.  “He was at the lead of all of those who were just delighted we finally could move forward,” Moss said.

Weixler was delighted that there would “finally be something to fill in that ugly blight,” said Walter Peterson, one of his WPL partners and his closest friend.  Delighted, yes. Completely satisfied? Never.

“Even after he would finish something published in Architectural Digest, he would say, ‘I wish we could have done this differently, or done that,'” Peterson said.

What began as representing Society Hill on a riverfront advisory committee led to Weixler’s role as founding chairman of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, or CDAG.

Under Weixler’s leadership, CDAG worked to ensure that the quasi-city Delaware River Waterfront Corporation focused on the public’s goals for the waterfront when developing the Central Delaware Master Plan. It pushed city planning to adopt that plan, so that all entities making decisions about the waterfront must consider plan goals. Weixler worked directly with the DRWC, city council, planning and zoning officials to create an interim overlay designed to protect the waterfront from anything that would detract from the city’s vision. When Weixler and his CDAG colleagues determined a proposal didn’t fit with what Philadelphia residents said they wanted during the public input process that led to the master plan, it was often Weixler himself who testified before the planning commission or city council and its committees.

Weixler never saw CDAG as more important than the civic associations whose representatives formed CDAG’s board, though.

“We’re looking not to be big brother, but big helper,” he said at one meeting, noting that CDAG could help civics who don’t have architects or planners as members better understand development proposals that they must consider.

Ruben, who is president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, met Weixler when both were part of the pre-CDAG Central Delaware Advisory Group, the much larger group of representatives from not only civic associations but business, development and government. The advisory group was established in 2006 by former Mayor John Street to work with PennPraxis – Penn’s School of Design’s practical arm – and city planning to get Delaware Waterfront planning off the ground. “It became clear immediately that he was functioning as the go-to civic representative in that larger body,” Ruben said.  There was a lot of mistrust around the table in those early days, he added.

Both Ruben and PennPraxis Executive Director Harris Steinberg give Weixler much of the credit for saving a planning process that came close to falling apart.

Back then, Steinberg notes, “there was no comprehensive plan, no zoning reform – zoning changes were made (largely) through the councilmanic process. Casinos were coming, and the longshoreman were up in arms,” concerned that the city’s new waterfront plan would mean more green space but fewer jobs.

The city administration was asking civic groups to participate in waterfront planning and telling them their voices would shape the Central Delaware, but at the same time, moving forward with approvals related to two waterfront casinos that many civics opposed. In many ways, the city was bound by state legislation, Steinberg said, but that did not ease the tension. The civics pushed PennPraxis to take a stand against casinos on the waterfront, but Steinberg said that wasn’t possible – Praxis had to be focused on form, not function.

Philadelphians didn’t think waterfront planning would amount to anything more this time than it had in the past. And they didn’t trust the former Penn’s Landing Corporation – the quasi-city agency charged with managing the city’s Delaware waterfront which was often criticized for being secretive and ineffective.

It looked like the civic associations  might abandon the process, Steinberg said, until Weixler, along with Old City’s Joe Schiavo, stepped in, serving as brokers between the civics and Praxis. Steinberg said he’ll always remember Weixler as a “gentleman diplomat” and a “Southern gentleman. A very gentle, intelligent, quiet but determined and focused person, who really knew how to navigate the shoals of human behavior.” It’s an apt metaphor for Weixler, an avid yachtsman.

When the Central Delaware Advisory Group group evolved into the advocacy group of civic organizations, Weixler was the “obvious choice” for chair, Ruben said. Weixler always made everyone feel their contributions were important, Ruben said. “No idea was off-limits. No voice was shut down.”

His desire to let everyone fully express themselves sometimes led to some long meetings.  Worried about the toll these meetings took on Weixler’s health, Peterson would tell his friend that sometimes, not everyone needed to be heard. “But he would say it was very important, as once they were heard, it was easier to enlist them” to help.

Following one of the directives that came out of the Central Delaware visioning process, Mayor Michael Nutter imploded the Penn’s Landing Corporation and replaced it with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation.

DRWC President Tom Corcoran said he met frequently with Weixler in the early days of the then-new organization. He had to work to earn Weixler’s trust. “When we first started working together, it was always cordial, but at that point, CDAG still had some reservations about the DRWC. They were still used to the old Penn’s Landing process. So he really viewed his role, and CDAG’s role as a watchdog, to make sure we were going to do everything supposed to do.”

Corcoran said as time went on and trust was gained on both sides, CDAG and DRWC forged a strong partnership that exists to this day.

In late 2009, CDAG’s first year as an advocacy group independent from the Praxis-led process, Weixler reflected on the group’s progress: “It’s good to hear we are developing a reputation as a credible, sensible presence,” he said. “I didn’t want us to be written off as a bunch of idealistic eggheads with an impossible dream.”

Weixler and Peterson founded their design firm a few years after meeting at a party in 1981. Weixler’s spatial perception and ability to “put onto paper no more and no less than what was exactly needed” made him a great designer, Peterson said. His honesty and intellect made him a good and interesting friend. “He was intellectually gifted and fascile,” Peterson said.

Did his honesty and sharp mind mean friendship included debate? “Oh good God yes,” Peterson said. “Sometimes you could hear us debate down the block.”

At one key point in the waterfront planning process, the combined goals of the thousands who participted were unveiled in a large public meeting. A video montage featuring key players in the formation of the Central Delaware Vision plan was shown.

“We always straddle the line between legacy and possibility,” Weixler says at the 3:13 mark in that video (see below). “And we deal with the legacy of good and bad things that have happened in Philadelphia, and we set off in the direction of leaving the next generations with something better.”

Weixler is survived by three brothers, Peterson, third WPL partner and friend, Marcello Luzi, and other friends. His mother died this past February, his father, years ago. A memorial service  will be held at 11:30 a.m., May 24 at St. Mark’s Church, 1625 Locust St., Philadelphia.