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Bill would break Delaware River height limits for S. Philly high-rise project

Although the legislation would apply to the entire waterfront-area overlay bounded by Oregon and Allegheny Avenues, it was motivated by K4 Associates LLC’s Liberty on the River proposal, which includes 10 high-rises on a waterside parcel between Washington Avenue and Reed Street.

Councilman Mark Squilla has proposed legislation that would boost the permitted height of buildings along the Delaware River as part of a plan for a new cluster of residential towers and townhouses on the South Philadelphia waterfront.

The ordinance that Squilla introduced at Thursday's City Council session would tweak the Central Delaware Overlay zoning district to include new "height bonuses" for projects that integrate stormwater-management features and throughways between major streets.

Although the legislation would apply to the entire waterfront-area overlay bounded by Oregon and Allegheny Avenues, it was motivated by K4 Associates LLC's Liberty on the River proposal, which includes 10 high-rises on a waterside parcel between Washington Avenue and Reed Street.

K4 attorney Stephen Pollock, who worked with city planning officials to devise the proposed zoning change, said it would help "allow a new neighborhood to be developed that will continue to attract people down to the waterfront."

But critics are already attacking the legislation, saying it disregards compromises among neighborhood groups, property owners, and open-space advocates that yielded the four-year-old overlay, which aims to keep waterfront building heights in line with those of surrounding neighborhoods while evenly spreading population density along the river.

"Each of the points of the overlay that's currently in place was hard-fought," said Joe Schiavo, vice chair of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, a coalition of river-adjacent neighborhood associations. "There was a logic behind every decision made."

Squilla said the terms of his bill will probably evolve during the hearing process, with the one chance for stakeholders to weigh in coming June 13, when the bill is to be reviewed by City Council's Rules Committee.

"We're going to keep an open dialogue with everybody," said Squilla, whose district includes all but a sliver of the Central Delaware Overlay. "I believe we can come up with legislation that satisfies most people."

Philadelphia planning and development director Anne Fadullon said in an e-mail that the proposed ordinance represents an effort to enable work toward activating the waterfront while maintaining the overlay's basic tenets.

"We hope the legislation serves as a starting point for a broader discussion that will include the community and other stakeholders," she said.

K4's proposed project would be built on an 18-acre site it acquired in 2015 from Sheet Metal Workers Local 19, in addition to an eight-acre panel – covered partly by the union's meeting hall – that it is negotiating to buy from the labor group. Former Local 19 head Tom Kelly, who also previously chaired the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment, is a partner in K4's local development entity.

K4's past projects have included financing a hotel in Dallas and managing construction in the conversion of a San Antonio, Texas, air base  into an apartment complex, according to its website. The Rockville, Md.-based company is also affiliated with an agency that arranges EB-5 investor visas for people overseas who sink money into job-creating projects in the United States.

When asked last year about projects that he or the company have fully developed, K4 managing member Jeffery Kozero would mention only a Baltimore-area shopping center called Village at Waugh Chapel, saying confidentiality agreements kept him from identifying others.

Alicyn Ames, a spokeswoman for Waugh Chapel owner Greenberg Gibbons of Owings Mills, Md., shared no information about Kozero's participation, emailing that the company is not "the right contact" for such questions. She did not respond to a follow-up request to elaborate. Kozero did not respond to a phone message late last week and Pollock had no immediate details about his or K4's development background.

K4 has applied for $44 million from this year's round of state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grants for the first four towers in the Liberty on the River project, the round's largest funding request for one development site, according to the Pennsylvania Budget Office's website.

K4 has said the first phases of construction – which include a 22-story, 264-unit apartment building with ground-floor retail and a 23-story, 200- to 220-guest-room hotel – could be completed by tapping available height bonuses, but the higher towers planned in later phases would require adjustments such as the one introduced in last week's legislation.

The bill would increase the maximum possible height of buildings along the river – with bonuses – to 316 feet, or nearly 30 stories, from 244 feet, according to a copy of the ordinance provided to the Inquirer. That would put it just short of the 329-foot Regatta building at the Waterfront Square complex near Poplar Street, which was constructed prior to the Central Delaware Overlay's implementation.

The newly proposed legislation doubles the height bonus available to developers who set aside space in their projects for public use, presumably allowing K4 to take greater advantage of an easement on its property to construct a waterfront recreational trail.

Additional height is obtainable through two new bonuses copied from a separate overlay district aimed at encouraging development in an industrial area north of Old City bounded by Second and Ninth Streets, between Spring Garden and Callowhill Streets.

The so-called East Callowhill Overlay grants additional height to projects with open space that can feed rain runoff into an underground sewer main running through the area. Squilla's legislation would offer an identical height bonus for such stormwater-retention infrastructure anywhere within the Central Delaware Overlay.

The East Callowhill Overlay also grants additional height to projects with east-west throughways along the route that Noble Street used to take through the area. The proposed changes to the Central Delaware Overlay grants such a bonus for connections between Columbus Boulevard and the river.

Kozero said last year that the height K4 hopes to earn through these bonuses will save it from having to design short, squat buildings to reach the square footage it needs for its development to be financially feasible.

But Schiavo, from the river advocacy group, said existing limits have not impeded recent projects such as the One Water Street Apartments near Vine Street and the 75-unit Bridgeview townhouse complex at Catharine Street. Festival Pier, near Spring Garden Street, is also on its way to being developed, with 550 homes and 30,000 square feet of retail space under existing guidelines.

"If the current tools are working, why would we change them?" Schiavo said.