Planning Commission Denies Application Involving Apartments on Riverfront

The Planning Commission held a meeting on August 26th and on the agenda was the “Final Major Subdivision and Land Development” for 401-433 Washington Street. This project involves a 600+ apartment community proposed by O’Neill Properties for the riverfront.

The Planning Commission ultimately voted to deny the application, but it is an interesting read on how they reached that conclusion. It will also give you an idea on how the planning process works. Below is text from the Planning Commission Action Report presented to Borough Council on September 10th:

The applicant verbally requested to be removed from the agenda; however these requests must be made in writing and was not removed. Therefore, the Planning Commission discussed and acted on the application.

Nobody was present to represent the applicant for the proposal to construct a four-building, 598-unit apartment complex on a 10.66-acre site, approximately 8 acres of which are in the Borough with the remainder in Whitemarsh Township. The buildings would be four (4) stories over surface parking, and 758 parking spaces would be provided on the site. Two (2) leasing offices and two (2) pools are proposed. Open space would comprise approximately 2.25 acres of the site and is proposed primarily along the riverfront; additional easements along the riverfront and to the riverfront from Washington Street will be dedicated to the Borough and the Township.

Mr. Peters stated that the Planning Commission has to take action tonight, advising that it is up to the Planning Commission as to how much detail they want to include in their recommendation, adding that Council cannot act on this due to the Zoning issue still not being resolved. Previously, the applicant granted the Borough an extension until September 30, 2014.

Mr. Vernon addressed Mr. Tobin’s question of why this application should/could be denied. He explained that not only does the applicant continuously submit revised plans, the applicant originally submitted plans with significantly large buildings because they need to stay out of the flood plain, but compensated by providing a large amount of green space. This is no longer the case. The buildings are still large, but there is no longer a significant amount of useable open space. Previously the plans showed thin rain gardens on the river side of the plan. Now they are enormous, consuming the entire, useable open area on the river side of the property. They are including walkways and parking bumpouts as recreation space, and calculations show they providing less than the required useable recreation area. In addition, because of the amount of recreation that was promised in the beginning is significantly less now, the project is significantly different, and it is recommended that the Planning Commission deny the project. It is no longer a high-density development with a large recreation space along the river.

Ms. Stetler stated that their last reason for revising the plan was based on requirements from DEP and for greater infiltration in the site, which is probably the applicant’s argument for increasing the size of the rain gardens. However, that does not mean their responsibility for open space or recreation space is diminished. Mr. Vernon pointed out that rain gardens are not allowed to be counted as recreation space. Ms. Stetler continued that the Borough is always looking for usable open space. Mr. Peters stated that without the applicant present, there is no one to rebut, but Ms. Stetler and Mr. Vernon make valid points.

Mr. Tobin asked if the applicant knew the application was still going to be discussed tonight. Ms. Stetler explained that Mr. Savona sent an email to her stating that action should/will be taken this evening on the application, and this email was also sent to Liz Gabor with O’Neill properties.

Discussion began regarding the size of the proposed buildings and the amount of the open space provided with the first submittal versus the last. Ms. Stetler explained how the project has continuously changed (for example, the number of units has changed with every submittal). She concluded by stating that the Planning Commission should expect any denial to be appealed.

Mr. Mittman made a motion to deny the proposal. He explained that the Borough has given the developer a lot, and the developer has not respected the Borough, and continues to keep pushing for more. Mr. Tobin requested that the motion be tabled in order to ask additional questions. The motion was tabled.

Mr. Tobin then asked what would happen if the Planning Commission did not act on the application; would it automatically get approved if the applicant does not grant an extension. Mr. Peters explained that Council cannot act without a recommendation from the Planning Commission. Ms. Stetler answered, stating that Council would most likely deny it, because they can’t approve it due to the outstanding Zoning issue. Mr. Peters added that if the Planning Commission does not act, it gives the developer one more issue to appeal. Mr. Tobin explained that he asked the question, because the Planning Commission announced that the item would be removed from the agenda. Mr. Mittman asked if the agenda has always remained the same; that the agenda that was published shows the O’Neill project. Ms. Stetler confirmed Mr. Mittman’s question. Ms. Stetler and Mr. Peters explained that it was the applicant who requested it be removed, and it was about 3:00 or 4:00 this afternoon.

Mr. Vernon wanted to also point out that Planning staff does not recommend approval of two waivers that were requested: 22-804.4.A.7 to allow land designated as recreation space to be included in density calculations, and 22-804.4.A.4 to permit stormwater management facilities to be located in areas designated as recreation space. He explained that it is inappropriate to consider space that is used for stormwater management to be space to play and recreate.

Mr. Mittman asked if not showing up to the Planning Commission hearing can ever be considered in future discussions regarding the denial or a possible appeal. Mr. Peters responded, stating that the only way it would be mentioned in any future discussion is if it is in the minutes.

There was no one present to speak for or against the project.

Mr. Tobin asked for a second to the motion that was already on the table by Mr. Mittman:
Mr. Mittman made a motion to deny the proposal. He explained that the Borough has given the developer a lot, and the developer has not respected the Borough, and continues to keep pushing for more, with the final disrespect of not showing up to the Planning Commission meeting this evening.

Mr. Weems seconded the motion based on staff review letters and comments, the fact that the Conditional Use has not been granted, and the issue of its unresolved appeal.

All voted in favor of recommending denial of the application.