Bensalem Township Council Files Controversial Riverside Rezoning Amendment

For decades, the Bensalem waterfront has been considered a land of opportunity.

Consider its location on the Delaware River, its proximity to Interstate 95, and its acres of land that could support a downtown area with homes, shops, and more. Officials have long envisioned the waterfront as a place where residents and others could live, work and play. When they unveiled the original plan, after years of study in 2015, they even gave the vision a lofty name, Riverfront Renaissance in New Bensalem.

But years later, little has changed, the vision has yet to be realized, and an effort to jump-start the revitalization has faced fierce opposition from businesses and landowners who say they have been excluded from the process and that the proposed changes will exclude them. work. Some even say they’re so far from the waterfront, facing I-95, that they don’t belong in the area.

“I discovered (this plan) late last week when it was casually presented to me that there was a map that had been drawn that looked like roads that would cross the property and create plots,” Broken Goblet Brewery said. said co-owner Mike LaCouture. “I looked at this map and I looked at my building and I see there’s a road that goes through our parking lot.

Trucks drive on and near State Road in Bensalem to and from warehouses in the area on Wednesday, August 24, 2022. Bensalem wants to bring more residential and mixed-use buildings to this waterfront area which is now mostly occupied by warehouses.

“Just to be clear to everyone, this will bankrupt us.”

LaCouture and others were at the Bensalem council meeting on Monday to voice concerns about a plan that would change a township ordinance that governs the zoning of what is known as the R-55 Riverfront Revitalization District. The neighborhood is a huge strip of land running from Street Road to Station Avenue, from the Delaware River to Interstate 95.

It is approximately 675 acres and plans call for a new road, Renaissance Boulevard, to cross it from Station Avenue to Street Road. It could halve other properties offered in the tract, including a warehouse long sought after by Johnson Development Associates, Inc.

The plans outline the proposed Renaissance Boulevard as the connecting road that would help connect this new downtown pedestrian community and a transitional boundary between lighter mixed-use development and industrial sites. It would help move truck traffic from the area’s heavy industrial and manufacturing uses on State Road away from residential developments and small businesses there, according to a presentation when the plan was unveiled years ago.

In an early version of the revitalization plan, the construction of Renaissance Boulevard was the first phase of proposed changes to the area.

Warehouses near State Road in Bensalem welcome cars and trucks to their parking lots on Wednesday, August 24, 2022. Bensalem wants to bring more residential and mixed-use buildings to this waterfront area which is now mostly occupied by warehouses.

On Monday, Bensalem Mayor Joe DiGirolamo and Bensalem Council introduced the amendment, which would ban a litany of future heavy manufacturing and warehouse projects while encouraging residential, mixed and light industrial use of the land.

“If there’s a conversation about trying to change the whole zoning in the area while I’m having trouble hosting events or setting up a tent in the parking lot,” said LaCouture, whose brewery is on State Road. “There should be a little more conversation.”

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Monday’s hearing was the first time the affected businesses and landowners were assessed in full, as well as their first opportunity to confront DiGirolamo and the city council about it. LaCouture was one of many operators to offer sometimes scathing rebukes to the plan.

Opponents say they feel left out of the process and fear the long-term negative impact it will have on their businesses, many of which depend on quick freeway access.

“Council members, let’s call this ordinance what it is. It takes an all-industrial zoning district and reverses it,” said Andrew Stoll, representing several business owners along State Road in the Revitalization District. “That takes out a lot of the great value of the R-55 neighborhood.”

John Grossi, co-owner of three entities that own eight parcels of industrial land along I-95 in the district, is part of the group of owners who lived through the initial efforts to start the redevelopment area 17 years ago, and said this plan won’t work without honest dialogue between owners, mayor and council.

“It’s an area of ​​640 acres; one square mile, or about the size of Hoboken, New Jersey,” said Grossi, of Samuel Grossi and Sons, a structural steel manufacturer that has been in business for decades. decades in the area. “This is a monumental idea and a monumental plan and it cannot happen simply by removing the uses of over 3 million square feet of industrial property that is nowhere near the waterfront. .

“We want to work with the township to do this stuff, but I’m an old-school industrialist, so I’m going to differ a little bit on what the mayor wants there,” Grossi added. “I believe this country has become great not through housing or Starbucks, but through building things. We have to work together.”

Members also expressed concern that the zoning changes would prohibit some current uses in the area in the future, and wondered whether new tenants would need to obtain a zoning variance to begin operations in the areas. existing uses, such as warehouses.

Trucks move through the parking lot near State Road in Bensalem on Wednesday, August 24, 2022. Bensalem wants to bring more residential and mixed-use buildings to this waterfront area which is now mostly occupied by warehouses.

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Bensalem’s attorney, Joseph Pizzo, hit back at allegations that the township was trying to harm businesses by undertaking what amounts to a major seizure of estate land. Eminent domain refers to the taking of land by the government.

“There seems to be a concept that’s been shared throughout the business community that this is leading to turning the entire R-55 district into residential, and that’s just not the case,” Pizzo said. . “The zoning ordinance amendment has already been completed in this neighborhood. It will allow the uses therein to continue and will hopefully stimulate an incremental change of use to continue to move the R-district 55 from what was in 2005, an all-industrial area into an area that will be…a residential, commercial area to support the residential, places like the broken goblet, stores and restaurants and those kinds of facilities for sustain.

“Less heavy manufacturing and more precision manufacturing; more research and development,” Pizzo added. “The expectation is that as one use disappears, another use will take its place.”

DiGirolamo said that as a developer and owner of industrial land in Buckingham, he sympathizes with the business owners affected. And although the mayor acknowledged that his dream of a completely redeveloped Bensalem seafront “is unlikely to happen” in his lifetime, he disputed the idea that he or the council singled out any particular industry.

“I understand more than anyone. For anyone to think that we’re building any kind of houses on the railroad is just not common sense; it’s not going to happen under any condition,” DiGirolamo said. “Maybe we can come to an agreement on how we can do this. We’re talking about a route that we’ve had in the plans since (at least) 2015.

“It’s not just a dream, it’s a vision and it’s common sense,” DiGirolamo continued. “Riverfronts all over the world are shifting from industry to shopping and all that, and Bensalem shouldn’t be left there.”

After absorbing public comments from the marathon, the Bensalem council voted to table the matter until September 27, during which time the council will meet with members of the business community and hopefully reach a conclusion. a workable compromise.

“We have a certain designation in Bensalem of being business-friendly, what we’re doing right now, to me, not talking to you and meeting you like we did (with previous rezoning efforts) ‘is wrong’ “The waterfront vision is a fantastic vision, there is room for both, but we all have to work together to make it happen,” said Joseph Pilieri, Board Member.

“I think it’s something very important, and we’re not doing it,” Pilieri added. “We didn’t give you the opportunity to give us your opinion before this meeting, and I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”

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