Earlier this week, we shared the news that plans should soon be moving forward to completely overhaul Penn’s Landing, a project that will be a major coup for the Delaware waterfront. As part of that plan, we noted that the Delaware River Trail will get extended from Spring Garden Street down to Washington Avenue, ostensibly connecting to Washington Avenue Green. We were in that neck of the woods, on Delaware Avenue just south of Washington the other day, and spied a sign for Liberty on the River, a project that might never happen.

Signs for the project
Looking north, toward Washington Ave.

If it ever actually happens, this project would go down as one of the most significant in Philadelphia history, essentially creating a new neighborhood on 26 acres of waterfront property. The plans call for ten towers rising between 22 and 34 stories, about a hundred townhomes, and retail spaces and parking at the base of every tower. The project is the brainchild of K4 Associates, who retained Barton Partners to do the design work.

Project rendering, image from Philly.com

But there’s a fly in the ointment for K4 Associates, or perhaps a small swarm of flies. The most significant issue is the Central Delaware Overlay, which limits the height of buildings on the waterfront to 244 feet. That number was negotiated over a number of years through an intense community process. But the developers need about 325 feet for some of their towers, per Inga Saffron, and Councilman Squilla introduced an ordinance last month to provide additional height bonuses that would have allowed the project to proceed by right. Needless to say, lots of people freaked out about this, including Central Delaware Advocacy Group (CDAG), and 5th Square. CDAG held a meeting last week at which people aired their concerns, and 5th Square got over 500 signatures on a petition opposing the ordinance. In response, Councilman Squilla pulled the bill earlier this week. Barring some kind of resurrection of the ordinance in the fall, we don’t see how the developers will be able to build the project they want to build.

But that’s not the only issue. Even if K4 Associates could build the project they want to build, is it even a good idea? Ever since I-95 was built through Center City in the 1970s and 1980s, it has cut off most of the downtown neighborhoods from the Delaware waterfront. As a result, developers have had very limited success building desirable residential projects along the river. The last major project on the Delaware, Waterfront Square, was pretty disastrous, and only three of the five originally planned towers ended up getting built. Of course, that project had the mitigating factor of the 2008 recession going against it, but as we understand it, even without the economic downtown the developers of that project still weren’t seeing the demand they were projecting.

Hey, maybe K4 Associates are onto something and previous plans for the Delaware waterfront have fallen flat because other developers weren’t thinking big enough. Perhaps a self contained neighborhood on the water, with a few thousand units and numerous stores and restaurants is exactly what’s needed to make development feasible in this part of town. That being said, with the ordinance withdrawn we expect the project will go through some revisions over the summer and come back around in a few months with some slightly different parameters. It’s not our money at risk, so we’re hopeful that something bold and significant ultimately gets built on this property. Given the response to the ordinance though, we’re thinking that if anything does ultimately get built, it will follow the provisions of the overlay.