Roughly 113,000 people have moved to Philadelphia since 2007. We pick that year because it was in many ways a turning point for this city, when the entrenched approach to development was challenged by a huge public planning process that has since transformed the Delaware River waterfront.
Until then, the six-mile strip of the central Delaware was a bleak landscape of industrial ruin, big-box retail, and gated high rises, along a boulevard built for cars, not people. The waterfront of a decade ago would be almost unrecognizable to our newest residents, surely among the millions who have enjoyed a walk along the four-mile trail or fishing off one of the newly revitalized piers — or in general enjoyed this reanimated part of the city.
The change in the Delaware’s physical landscape reflects a change in the landscape of how things have worked in this city, from a time of backroom deals with no public input, and virtually no dialogue about the common good. The blueprint for planning the central Delaware reflects what the public demanded, when thousands of them became part of the planning process.
That all might change Tuesday if Wawa succeeds in getting approval for a “Super Wawa” with gas pumps at Tasker Street and Columbus Boulevard.
Tuesday, the Zoning Board of Adjustment will decide if developer Bart Blatstein, whose Tower Investments owns the property, can succeed at sidestepping a prohibition on gas stations by subdividing the property in a way that would technically allow the gas pumps.
There is opposition, from planning types, community members, and organizations like the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, which serves as steward of the waterfront and is pushing to adhere to the master plan. They and others are expected to testify against the proposal on a number of key points, the biggest being that people, not cars, should drive the plan.
The opposition shouldn’t be cast as a simplistic “antidevelopment” focus. Careful planning means approving development that can be a catalyst for a diverse waterfront that includes housing and retail as well as public spaces and trails. Indeed, hundreds of housing units have been developed, with 3,500 more in the pipeline that includes retail development.
The point is to have development remain true to the spirit of what this waterfront should be: something the public can access and enjoy.
It’s surprising that Wawa, so often described as “beloved,” and that touts “giving back to the communities where we do business” and being “the best neighbors we can be,” is so insistent on pushing back against the spirit that has infused the creation of this civic asset.
If the gas pumps prevail, Mayor Kenney should be prepared to flex his muscle if necessary. In a city increasingly choked with congestion, a giant gas station isn’t the right message to send.
For too many years, other cities who have turned their waterfronts into amazing destinations have put ours to shame. We’ve been steadily creating a real contender among great urban waterfronts. That could all change overnight with a development that says the will of the people takes a backseat to cars.