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Could The Delaware River Support 10 High-Rise Apartment Buildings?

With renewed interest in the Delaware River waterfront, one city councilman and a developer are wondering just how big riverfront property can get in Philadelphia.

The parcel at which K4 Associates wants to build a high-rise apartment complex

A proposed development from K4 Associates, called Liberty on the River, would be a multifamily community of 10 high-rise buildings in an area along Christopher Columbus Boulevard between Washington and Reed streets, with public spaces and a proposed walking trail.

Several of the buildings would be taller than zoning currently allows under the Central Delaware Overlay, but City Councilman Mark Squilla has proposed a zoning change to mirror the one provided for the East Callowhill district (home of the Callow East portfolio).

That change allowed for more height in general to allow the area to transition from light industrial and older office uses to more modernized mixed-use, and it provided additional height bonuses for taking over stormwater handling from the city and building pedestrian throughways on what used to be Noble Street. Squilla and K4 are hoping that similar incentives and permissions will allow them to create a huge new community on the river.

“I think there’s a good potential to have high-rise development there,” Squilla said. “The developers have met with the community several times.”

The proposed zoning change would not merely affect Liberty on the River. It would take precedence over the entire Central Delaware Overlay, including the properties purchased by the Durst Organization earlier this year and the area on which the city would like to cap I-95 for a park connecting Old City to the Delaware. While Durst has no immediate plans to build, it opens up a whole new range of possibilities for scale that is common on many other cities’ waterfronts, but not Philly’s; and perhaps that is with good reason.

“We’re not fully happy with the bill as it’s proposed,” Delaware River Waterfront Corp. vice president Joe Forkin said. “We’d like to responsibly spread absorption along the waterfront, so one large project wouldn’t consume the development along the river.”

Squilla would prefer to “see height not as an obstacle, but a benefit,” citing a preference to allow tall, thin buildings rather than force long, squat ones and trusting density to work itself out.

“No one’s going to go out and build seven towers they can’t fill because they won’t make any money, so I think the market dictates the number of buildings that would happen along the Delaware,” Squilla said.

Forkin said that his problem is not the height of any individual building. Some wish to see checks put in place to make sure so many apartments could be filled.

The union headquarters where K4 Associates wishes to build a high-rise complex

Bonuses already exist for private developers to gain height by making public space and pedestrian connections along the Delaware River, but Liberty on the River would blow past even those limits. With so many apartments planned, it remains to be seen how much green space and transportation overhaul would be needed to make the area resemble a neighborhood, or integrate it with one close by.

“You have a really dense neighborhood to the west in Pennsport, and part of our goal is to connect that area to the waterfront,” Forkin said, noting the transformation surrounding the Spring Garden subway stop at the northeast end of the East Callowhill area as a precedent for future connections.

While Christopher Columbus Boulevard in South Philly in some ways resembles East Callowhill’s industrial buildings and proximity to highways and arterial roads that could discourage pedestrian traffic, it also is home to several big-box retailers and a movie theater. While a retail presence is key to any multifamily project, the type of local businesses and restaurants that dominate fast-growing neighborhoods in Philadelphia are few and far between.

To accomplish that, both Squilla and Forkin would like to see stronger pedestrian connectors, and possibly additional streets, added to the area to make it more walkable.

“I think an additional connector street is both for traffic flow and pedestrians,” Squilla said. “As we go along the connector streets, do we look at residential and retail? I think we want more retail on the first floors to make streets more appealing to walk on.”

The big-box stores that dominate the retail landscape of the area do not fit with the vision of a continuous neighborhood between South Philly and the waterfront.

“Whether [the strip malls] stay there for another 15-20 years I can’t say, but they’ll probably leave at some point as the area redevelops,” Forkin said.

With this development cycle slowing down and pushback from community advocates, the scale that K4 is planning may be years away, if it ever happens.