ON WEDNESDAY, City Council made headway on improving the city's waterfront, when the rules committee approved a zoning overlay covering a stretch

of the Delaware between Oregon and Allegheny avenues.

The overlay, from Councilman DiCicco, provides interim planning requirements until a city master plan supersedes it, and will help create a riverfront trail and a retail/commercial corridor, and better connect the riverfront and the city- all the focus of the civic vision for the central Delaware created after nearly two years of public meetings.

The overlay keeps certain kinds of developments, such as big-box stores and mile-high condo developments, from being developed at least until a more coherent master plan is developed in about two years. It would create a "setback" for foot and bicycle traffic of 100 feet or 10 percent of the total parcel, whichever is less.

This could be a giant leap, not only for the Delaware, but for the city as a whole. That's because it helps readdress the way the city gets developed.

And if the spirited testimony during Wednesday's hearing is any indication, get ready for some passionate and ongoing arguments on land use, and on whose voices count in building the city.

Foes of the overlay were represented by the Development Workshop, a nonprofit group of developers lead by Ballard Spahr attorney Michael Sklaroff and by planning and development executive Craig Schelter. Both challenged the overlay, with arguments centering on the primacy of private-property owners vs. the public good.

In this town, the former has traditionally held sway, particularly in a city where for too long, the approach to planning has been, "Please come and build anything here."

And the long underutilized waterfront, built with no coherent vision other than apparently shutting out the public, is a logical focal point for this argument. In addition to creating a vision for the Delaware, the Penn Praxis process also reminded citizens that they can and should have a bigger say in how the city gets developed.

The hearing also provided a closer glimpse into a system needing serious overhaul. Fortunately, a zoning reform commission is set to streamline the inefficient process of building anything in the city. Even without referencing the chart of this maddening process on page 21, it's clear that it can't happen soon enough.

For example, Sklaroff protested a stipulation of the overlay that would give approval authority to the Planning Commission. He objected to the idea that instead of City Council approving zoning for a project, projects would be subject to "the subjective review of the Planning Commission."

Only in this city could it be a threat to have the authority on planning and zoning be . . . the Planning Commission.

The city charter gives zoning authority to Council. There are reasons that makes sense, but more reasons why it doesn't. Case in point: also passed out of committee is a bill creating a Delaware River Conservation District; just north of the central Delaware, in Joan Krajewski's district, this calls for a trail and setbacks of 50 feet. Such is the patchwork, Balkan-state approach to urban planning in the city.

We're not arguing for Council to be cut out of the process. A good start might be having at least one Council representative on the Planning Commission.

But the city needs a single professional body like the Planning Commission to weigh the impact of planning and development on the city as a whole, not just according to important, but narrow, councilmanic concerns. *