The developer behind the most ambitious proposal yet for Philadelphia's Delaware River waterfront wants to get high with a little help from City Council.

To seek support for an ordinance that would shatter the waterfront area's building-height limits, executives with developer K4 LLC visited a South Philadelphia community near its proposed complex of townhouses and residential high-rises, called Liberty on the River.

The ordinance would tweak regulations adopted three years ago that govern development along the central Delaware riverfront. Jeffery Kozero, K4's managing member, said he needs to be able to build higher than currently is permitted to generate enough floor area for the project to be financially feasible. 

"There's a financial threshold that we need to meet," Kozero said in an interview Wednesday after the first of what is expected to be several presentations to Pennsport Civic Association members. "For us, going higher is better than going squatter."

K4's plan is the latest proposal to come to light since the adoption of the 2013 zoning overlay, which seeks to map out the waterfront's transition from a largely blighted strip of big-box retail and disused industrial buildings into an inviting extension of the city's urban core.

Far to the north, near Spring Garden Street, Jefferson Apartment Group and Haverford Properties plan to build about 550 units of housing and 30,000 square feet of retail on a property known as Festival Pier, where concerts now take place. 

Just to the south of K4's land, on the tract where a Foxwoods casino had once been planned, developer Bart Blatstein has proposed apartments and townhouses fronted by a convenience store with gas pumps, plus a large supermarket. 

The K4 plan covers nearly all the land east of South Columbus Boulevard between Washington Avenue and Reed Street. The Rockville, Md.-based developer acquired 18 acres there last year from Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 and is negotiating with the union to purchase an additional eight-acre parcel, which is partly covered by its meeting hall, Kozero said.

The proposal calls for 10 residential high-rises and about 100 townhouses encompassing up to 2,000 units around a broad throughway that originates on Columbus Boulevard, across the street from an I-95 ramp. Two narrower east-west throughways to the north would provide more links for the public between Columbus Boulevard and the river. Shops and restaurants are planned for the ground floor of each residential tower, with several decks of parking on the floors immediately over that retail space.

The first phase of construction, which K4 said may begin as soon as the spring, involves a 22-story, 264-unit apartment building with ground-floor retail and a 23-story, 200- to 220-guest-room hotel, said Seth Shapiro, a principal with Barton Partners architects, which is designing the project.
K4 expects to get automatic permission to build the first two towers by tapping density bonuses under the zoning code for including ground-floor retail and open space, and for selling a riverfront easement to the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. for a cycling and walking trail, Shapiro said. 
But the later towers, which may soar up to 34 stories, are higher than can be managed under current zoning. That's why K4 is asking City Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district includes the site, to sponsor legislation that would give the developer additional bonuses for including the east-west throughways that ease public access to the riverfront trail.
"Creating these connectors should be rewarded for providing the enhancements to get to the trail," Kozero said.

Squilla said in an email that the development "would first need community support before we would consider moving forward with any plans."

During Wednesday's Pennsport meeting, which lasted well over an hour, community members seemed noncommittal about the plan, asking pointed questions about construction timing, parking quotas, traffic management, and benefits for the surrounding neighborhood.

Harris Steinberg, whose work on a planning committee nearly a decade ago helped inform the 2013 zoning overlay, said after being briefed on K4's proposal that he was unimpressed.

Especially bothersome, he said, are the levels of parking close to ground level that he believed would deaden the streetscape and what he saw as a haphazard layout of buildings that are too dense for the amount of accompanying open space.

"It just seems grossly overscaled for that site," said Steinberg, who now directs Drexel University's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. "It relates to the I-95 off-ramp and not to the city of Philadelphia and the walkable urbanism that the city of Philadelphia is known for."