By: Sandra Falicki
The city's Zoning Board of Adjustment granted variances for residential development on Venice Island, which sits between the Schuylkill River and the Manayunk Canal. The board's decision ends two months of speculation between developers and community groups opposed to residential development on the island.
Community groups including the Manayunk Neighborhood Council and Friends of the Manayunk Canal, along with the PA chapter of the Sierra Club, held a press conference on Saturday at the Canal, and generally oppose residential development in the floodway. Venice Island also sits in a floodway, which is where flood waters flow the fastest and deepest.
"It's inconceivable that the city just approved development against a wide range of ordinances it has against building in a raging floodway," said Wendy Lathrop, a professional land surveyor and consultant for the opposing groups.
The Sierra Club also commented in their press statement that the decision "reflects a blatant disregard for the personal safety of current and future residents of the Manayunk community, which is already severely challenged during flood events."
"It is very irresponsible of city officials to go along with this," said Nancy Rauch, Vice Chair of the Executive Committee of the Sierra Club. "Pennsylvania currently leads the country with death rates during floods. FEMA says this (decision) jeopardizes city flood insurance."
James Witt, director of the National Office of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), wrote a letter to the board stating that the city's eligibility for the national Flood Insurance Program could be jeopardized if the proposals were approved and that future flood damage presents a heavy burden to the community and to tax payers.
After reviewing proposals for a total of 430 apartment units from two separate developers, the board decided that the properties could include a total of 313 units. Dranoff Properties, Inc., whose proposal was unanimously approved, plans to build 160 apartment units on Flatrock Rd., where the old Namico Soap Factory is located.
Realen Properties proposed 260 apartment units at Cotton and Main Streets at the Connelly Container Corporation site and was only approved for 153 units. Dennis Maloomiam, president of Realen Properties was unavailable for comment at the time of this story. Both Dranoff and Realen submitted studies to the board that illustrate how their developments will not negatively affect floodwaters and showing plans that take precautionary efforts to protect the developments and residents.
Some of these precautionary efforts include the construction of additional bridges and walkways that will link the apartment sites to the mainland. Dranoff also plans to erect new buildings on 12-foot pillars so that residents will be 16 feet above the ground which is the recorded flood density of a 100-year storm.
The community groups are outraged and disappointed in the board's decision, gathered at the canal on Saturday toting life jackets and signs that read: "They thought the Titanic Safe" and "No Homes in the River" and placed an 8-foot marking on a wall behind them, demonstrating the recorded level of a 25-year flood and flood level during Hurricane Floyd.
Citizens have concerns about the hazards associated with flooding conditions and residential evacuation, additional traffic and parking problems to an already congested area and the financial burden of disaster on the tax payer.
"I don't want to see my tax dollars going to developers relief," said Hilary Langer, local resident and president of the Vesper Boat Club, who frequently uses the Schuylkill River for rowing and conoeing.
"There will be incredible damage." Lathrop also noted that residential evacuation would be difficult and that the community would be burdened with providing temporary shelter for flood victims.
"This is an unsafe and unwise plan," Lathrop said. "I regret that the city made this foolish decision and ignored community concerns."
"We have environmental concerns and evacuation concerns and we have not seen adequate plans," said Darlene Messina, president of the Friends of the Manayunk Canal. "We would like to provide Mayor Street, officials at License and Inspections and the Zoning Board with complimentary life jacket."
The opposing groups plan to continue to raise public awareness about their stance and to appeal this decision at the city and state court levels.