Friday, August 11, 2000

Developments approved for Manayunk's Venice Island

By Mark Jaffe


The path for major residential development on Manayunk's Venice Island has been cleared by the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The board earlier this week granted variances for two large developments on the strip of land between the Manayunk Canal and the Schuylkill.

The developers had sought a total of 430 units in two apartment projects. Under the board's decision, those projects can contain no more than a total of 313 units.

The decision immediately drew fire from neighborhood groups opposed to development because of concerns about flooding and traffic.

"We've got to get together with our attorney and review this," said Darlene Messina, a spokeswoman for Friends of the Manayunk Canal. She said a court appeal of the decision was possible.

Liz Turella, president of the Manayunk Neighborhood Council, said, "Anyone who doesn't have a financial interest in these properties would think building apartments on this site foolish."

Lawyers for both developers - Dranoff Properties Inc. and Realin Properties - generally applauded the decision.

"We are pleased that the zoning board, after reviewing the record, decided Venice Island is appropriate for residential development," said Michael Sklaroff, Realin's lawyer.

Venice Island is a low-lying, 300-acre sliver of land wedged between the canal and the river. It has historically been industrial land, and it periodically floods.

The island has flooded 10 times in the last 130 years, and much of the proposed development is in the "floodway," where floodwaters actually flow.

Neighborhood groups and environmentalists raised concerns that building in the floodway would create safety problems and [Image]worsen flooding downriver. [Image] [Image]

James L. Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), wrote a letter opposing the developments. The Delaware River Basin Commission staff was also critical of the plans.

But hydrological studies submitted to the zoning board and approved by FEMA showed that the developments would not exacerbate flooding.

Additional studies and designs - also submitted to the board - showed that efforts had been made to protect the properties and their residents.

Peter Kelsen, lawyer for Dranoff Properties, said that all the measures taken by his client had addressed the key issues raised.

Dranoff is planning to build 160 apartments on the site of the old Namico Soap Factory, on Flat Rock Road. The old factory would be refurbished, some old buildings would be knocked down, and some new ones erected.

The new buildings will be on 12-foot pillars, so all apartments will be at least 14 feet above the ground and well above the recorded 100-year flood.

An emergency, elevated walkway from the development to Manayunk will also be built to enable residents to leave the apartment complex even during flood conditions.

The zoning board unanimously approved the Dranoff plan.

Realin, however, was seeking a variance to allow it to build 270 apartment units in a cluster of four- and five-story buildings on the site of the old Connelly Container Crop., at Cotton and Main Streets.

That density was almost double the zoning allowed for the site, and it was opposed by the city Planning Commission; Councilman Michael Nutter, who represents the area, and several neighborhood groups.

Realin had argued that it was seeking the added density to make the project more cost-effective. But the zoning board granted a variance allowing only 153 units.

"We are disappointed," Sklaroff said. "We think the density is insufficient. We are going to take a hard look at the decision and consider the options."

- Mark Jaffe's e-mail address is