City Council yesterday approved two measures that could boldly affect the way the city looks, by establishing a vision for waterfront development and protecting historic buildings' interiors.
The bills, which would create a 100-foot setback along seven miles of Delaware River waterfront and allow interiors to be designated as historic, passed by overwhelming margins, and Mayor Nutter has indicated he would sign them into law.
The "Civic Vision" for the central Delaware River would create a temporary set of rules for development from South Philadelphia to parts of Port Richmond. Most notably, the bill would require property owners to devote the first 100 feet of the river's edge to green space, and would give the Planning Commission greater say in the approval of development.
City officials have said the ordinance would stay in place for 12 to 16 months while they work on a master plan.
"This legislation is an attempt to depoliticize the development process and allow planners the ability and the power to plan effectively," Councilman Frank DiCicco, the bill's prime sponsor, said in a speech before Council. "This idea is a significant departure from the status quo, and, in my opinion, the most important feature of the bill."
Michael Sklaroff, a lawyer and chairman of a coalition of developers and real estate professionals known as Development Workshop Inc., has said the 100-foot setback is essentially an illegal taking of land.
"I would say that the concerns that we raised . . . have largely not been addressed by the recent amendments to the bill," Sklaroff said.
"Civic Vision," crafted by PennPraxis, the clinical arm of the University of Pennsylvania Design School, was put together over the course of a year and released in 2007.
It relied heavily on community input, and critics have called it an academic exercise devoid of landowners' perspective. The bill, they say, creates a de-facto moratorium on development.
On the other hand, Councilman Bill Green's bill to authorize historic designation for building interiors appears to have satisfied most parties.
The bill, which took more than a year to navigate through Council, would require property owners to seek approval from the Historical Commission for altering an interior that has been designated historic.
There are plenty of candidates around the city.
In a June 2008 letter to Council, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia identified about 80 sites, including City Hall, Carpenters' Hall, and some iconic banks and smaller commercial sites.
Furthermore, the bill has been tailored to exempt private buildings constructed as residences, and includes an amendment directing the Historical Commission to consider the "mission and financial status of a nonprofit organization" in enforcing the law.
Green and cosponsors Blondell Reynolds Brown and William Greenlee introduced the bill in the midst of a frenzied public effort to save the interior of the Boyd Theatre in May 2008.
The Boyd has been working on a solution with a new landowner, but Boyd supporters said the law would make their job easier. "It's wonderful that other historic interiors will be able to obtain protection as a result of our movement to save the Boyd," said Howard Haas, chairman of the Friends of the Boyd.
It was not developers, but rather the city's most prominent cultural institutions that slowed the bill. Institutions such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art were concerned that the approval process would delay important interior construction projects and create obstacles for organizations whose mission was directly related to preservation.
"We spent a lot of time explaining to people why the sky wouldn't fall if we passed this bill," Green said.
"It's a very important tool for Philadelphia to have," said John Gallery, president of the Preservation Alliance, who was originally wary of the bill but supported it in the end. Gallery said the historical designation would be used strategically for targeted sites and not result in a glut of historical designations.
In other business, Council unanimously approved Maria Quiñones Sánchez's bill to not only outlaw the sale of expired over-the-counter drugs - it's already against federal law to sell expired products - but to also give consumers leverage by entitling them to a 50 percent discount on a product if they find an expired item on store shelves.
Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. introduced legislation, to be presented in a referendum in November, that would authorize the city to bar contractors and city-funded nonprofits that fail to "make best and good-faith efforts to implement economic-opportunity plans."
Regulations to require contractors to meet diversity goals have struggled to overcome legal precedents outlawing quotas, and Goode has consistently said that no city law will have an effect until a contractor is barred from city contracts for not following it. Last week, Goode introduced another bill that would require those businesses and nonprofits to document their past efforts to diversify their workforces.