Wednesday, June 24, 2009
The city of Philadelphia, one of the nation’s oldest, used to have a reputation for being somewhat staid. And this traditional conservatism has been reflected in its land use law. Until recently, Philadelphia followed an unwritten and very old-world-style policy that no building would be taller than the statue of William Penn atop the enormous masonry 1901 City Hall tower. In the 1980s, however, the practice was finally broken with a number of New-York-like office towers. Philadelphia also has lagged behind other big cities in turning its waterfront into a public recreation area. Once one of the nation’s busiest ports, the wide Delaware River would be turned into a “greenway,” in part through an ordinance adopted last week by the city council.
According to the new law, a “continuous recreational experience along the riverfront … will enhance public space and economic vitality of the area.” Toward this end, the law specifies what kinds of businesses are permitted (no adult book stores or guns shops) and requires that new construction to be largely glass at the ground floor. Most significantly, the law requires a setback from the river of 100 feet (or 10 percent of the lot, if this is less than 100 feet). No new construction in commercial areas here will be permitted unless the owner creates a recreational trail within the riverfront setback and creates an access path to the setback.
In this way, of course, the city intends to create a public greenway without having to buy land or use eminent domain. Developers are already arguing that the setback and trail requirements are an unconstitutional “exaction” of land to the public without just compensation. Stay tuned …
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