Every couple of years, developer Bart Blatstein resurfaces with the same moldy proposal for a Super Wawa gas station on Columbus Boulevard in South Philadelphia. He knows that the Delaware waterfront master plan, which was the product of a lengthy public process, forbids new, auto-centric uses near the river. He also knows that the city has been working for years to transform the area into a walkable, urban neighborhood. But Blatstein couldn’t care less about what the public wants.
His argument is always the same: Nothing has changed on the Delaware since the master plan was adopted in 2011. Columbus Boulevard is, and always will be, a junked-up sprawl of big-box stores and drive-throughs. Ergo, his gas station is the best development that Philadelphia can hope to get. Blatstein will be advancing this narrative when he goes before the Zoning Board next week (Tuesday, 9:30 a.m.) to make his case for the Wawa pumps.
But Blatstein’s gas station proposal has been kicking around for so long that time has passed him by. This isn’t the same Delaware waterfront where he built strip malls in the 1980s. Columbus Boulevard is a place in transition, a hybrid of urban and suburban forms.
It’s true that the overly wide street hasn’t become the avenue of elegant apartment towers that Philadelphia once envisioned, but housing is slowly but surely starting to fill in the empty acres along the Delaware. The Cherry Street Pier and Fringe theater are now well-established fixtures in the city’s art scene. A series of pier parks, described in the master plan as a string of pearls, are now starting to resemble a completed necklace.
Within the next two years, the city will start construction on a 12-acre park that will replace the Great Plaza and cover the great gulch of I-95, eventually creating a seamless link between the river and Center City. In anticipation, the agency that oversees the waterfront has put out a call to apartment developers to submit proposals for two large Penn’s Landing sites. More and more people are walking and biking along Columbus Boulevard. A gas station would take the waterfront backward.
How the Zoning Board will respond at Tuesday’s hearing is anyone’s guess. Blatstein isn’t just coming back with the same outdated proposal, he also has a devious new strategy to win approval for it.
Instead of trying to convince the Zoning Board to let him put the gas station on Columbus Boulevard (at the intersection with Tasker Avenue), he now claims that those pumps won’t actually be located on the boulevard itself. How has he achieved this sleight-of-hand? With a questionable subdivision that carves off a 20-foot-strip of land along the street, effectively giving the proposed gas station a different address.
The artifice is so obvious that it’s hard to imagine anyone falling for Blatstein’s little trick. Except that the Department of Licenses & Inspections did and signed off on the arrangement in September. As a result, Blatstein doesn’t need a formal variance from the Zoning Board, merely a lesser standard of approval called a special exception.
Virtually every group involved with the waterfront has expressed outrage over the ploy. The Planning Commission condemned the project at its October meeting, noting that motorists would still enter the gas station from Columbus Boulevard by driving across the subdivided property. The Delaware River Waterfront Corp. plans to testify against the proposal. Pennsport Civic Association will be there, too.
“It’s an end run” around the master plan, complained Matt Ruben, who chairs the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, a coalition of waterfront neighborhoods. The group also plans to speak out against Blatstein’s gas station.
It’s not just this one case. If Blatstein’s subdivision strategy is allowed to stand, it will break the zoning code. You can easily imagine other developers trying the same maneuver, along the waterfront and in other places in Philadelphia. Don’t like your property’s zoning restrictions? Subdivide!
Maybe the biggest argument against Blatstein’s waterfront narrative is staring him in the face from the other side of Columbus Boulevard. While he claims the avenue remains an auto-dependent highway, another developer, Cedar Realty Trust, is making plans to build two mid-rise apartment buildings at the intersection with Reed Street.
The design is as urban as they come, with the buildings fronting directly onto Columbus Boulevard and the ground floors set aside for retail. One of the buildings will even replace the parking lot of the Riverview movie theater — one of Blatstein’s early, auto-centric projects. Cedar’s mid-rises are exactly what the master plan calls for. If Cedar can do it, so can Blatstein.
Blatstein got his start as a developer by buying up former industrial sites along the Delaware and replacing them with small shopping centers. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the southern part of Columbus Boulevard was an overgrown wasteland, and walking there was nearly impossible, highway-style projects seemed like an improvement.
Those shopping centers made Blatstein very wealthy — so wealthy that he recently built himself a house on Rittenhouse Square that is said to be worth close to $16 million. Since moving there two years ago, he has become active in the neighborhood’s civic life. He took over the presidency of the tony Friends of Rittenhouse Square and injected a new vigor into the organization.
Blatstein also has helped out the local civic group, the Center City Residents Association, rethink its annual fall fund-raising event. Instead of the usual neighborhood house tour, Blatstein offered to open up his home as the sole destination — for $1,000 a ticket. The Oct. 22 event netted the CCRA $22,000, twice the amount it usually raises. Blatstein says he wants to make sure that the Rittenhouse Square area remains an urban showplace.
The neighborhood is lucky to have someone with his skills committed to that goal. But the Delaware waterfront and the Pennsport neighborhood deserve no less.
Rittenhouse Square and the waterfront are more alike than Blatstein realizes. They’re both great urban open spaces, just in different stages of their evolution. Only 15 years ago, the Philadelphia Parking Authority wanted to build a parking garage facing Rittenhouse Square. Now a different developer is erecting a 48-story luxury high-rise on the same site.
Times change. The city moves on. But only if you don’t let a bad project get in the way.