A city spokesperson confirmed to the South Philly Review on Friday that developer Bart Blatstein’s Super Wawa proposal along Columbus Boulevard was struck down by the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment in a July 22 meeting.
Initially, L&I issued a referral for the project, requiring the development team to acquire a special exception in order to build it. However, opponents argued against the referral, saying that L&I should have instead issued a refusal, which would require a variance from the zoning code rather than a special exception. Because a variance requires community approval to build the project, it would have meant a higher bar for the development team to clear – especially since the community, specifically the Pennsport Civic Association and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, was nearly unanimous in its opposition to the project. At the July 22 meeting, the ZBA voted that it should have indeed been issued a refusal (triggering a variance) instead of a refusal (triggering a special exception) and as a result determined that the project failed to meet the criteria for a variance, likely because of the lack of community support.
However, the city spokesperson confirmed that the project also failed to meet the criteria for a special exception as well.
A written decision on the matter will likely be issued by the ZBA next week.
The proposal was controversial both for the community and for the city’s zoning laws due to the development team’s subdivision of the land, which many thought was done in an effort to brazenly circumvent zoning laws. Because the Central Delaware Overlay — a zoning overlay that, in part, aims to encourage pedestrian-friendly development on the waterfront — prevents auto-centric uses that front on Columbus Boulevard, the development subdivided the property in a way that put a 20-foot strip of land between Columbus Boulevard and the proposed Wawa. This was done so the developers could say the Wawa technically didn’t front on the boulevard.
“The ordinance says that we can’t have frontage on…Columbus Boulevard,” the development team’s lawyer, Carl Primavera, said in a ZBA meeting on the matter last year. “This barrier lot technically satisfied that, so we don’t have a prohibition.”
The project also flew in the face of the city’s and the residents’ desire to make the Delaware River waterfront more pedestrian-friendly and less car-centric. Frank DiCicco, who is coincidentally both the former Philadelphia city councilman who introduced the CDO legislation and the present-day chair of the ZBA, said at the same meeting last year that the overlay was aimed, in part, at preventing “all of the big box gas stations” south of the proposed Wawa site from continuing north.
In a tweet, the DRWC, which hired attorneys to fight the project, called the decision “a win for all who deserve safe pedestrian access.” However, a spokesperson for the organization had no further comment on the matter when asked.
The Pennsport Civic Association, which had long been against the project, thanked the DRWC and Central Delaware Advocacy Group “for working with us to protect the collective vision and future of the waterfront.”
“We are pleased that the ZBA has rejected the proposed automotive-centric use and hope to work with the owner toward a more appropriate and beneficial use for this parcel,” said the civic’s president, Patrick Fitzmaurice. “This ruling respects the processes in place to protect stakeholders, which are reflected in our city’s zoning laws, and preserves the intent of the Master Plan for the Central Delaware.”
A Facebook post by the civic association said that it expects an appeal to be filed by the developer.