City Council could soon take a major step in an effort under way for more than two years to create a new civic vision for the underused central Delaware River waterfront.

The Rules Committee gave its support yesterday to land-use measures setting aside property for public use and restricting the way it can be developed. Council is expected to vote on the changes by June 18, its last session before the summer break.

The committee approved the bill introduced by Councilman Frank DiCicco over the objections of a group representing about 20 property owners.

The zoning "overlay" would be replaced by a new master plan in 12 to 16 months, said Alan Greenberger, executive director of the City Planning Commission.

The interim measures apply to an area defined by Allegheny Avenue to the north, Oregon Avenue to the south, the river to the east, and I-95 to the west. They would:

Prohibit certain types of buildings along the waterfront, including bus terminals, big-box stores covering more than 40,000 square feet, parking garages, and self-storage facilities.

Set back development 100 feet from the river's edge to allow for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

Require new commercial space fronting Delaware Avenue or Columbus Boulevard to have ground-floor uses such as stores or offices, lobbies, art or entertainment spaces.

Allow for public-access paths 12 to 25 feet wide from the street to the waterfront.

One controversial provision would prohibit the issuing of a zoning permit unless a developer has a plan of development approved by the Planning Commission.

That is the biggest problem, said Michael Sklaroff, chairman of the nonprofit Development Workshop, which represents the property owners as well as lawyers and other real estate professionals. He said projects would hinge on "the subjective review of the Planning Commission."

His group includes about a half-dozen owners of waterfront property.

Craig Shelter, the Development Workshop's executive director, called the 100-foot setback "extremely excessive."

Sklaroff challenged the legality of the overlay. The Planning Commission, he said, lacks the authority under the city's Home Rule Charter to make zoning decisions.

Workshop members also argue that the bill would constitute the taking of private property without just compensation.

Sklaroff testified that there was already ample public access along the water and referred to the existing "riverwalk."

A puzzled Democratic at-large Councilman James F. Kenney asked, "What riverwalk?"

Sklaroff said he meant public sidewalks that could be converted to a riverwalk. "It could be made a lot better," he said. "You don't have to encroach on development."

Kenney supported the bill, saying too much land along the riverfront was fallow, to no one's advantage.

"If you're sitting on 40 acres of land that is not developed," Kenney asked, "is that in the public's best interest?"

He conceded that supporting the measure "was, on some level, a leap of faith."

There have been "pie in the sky" ideas for developing the waterfront, Kenney said. "We need to go in another direction because the other stuff has not worked."

Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com

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