VIDEO: Water Plant Worries

With massive updates planned for Philly’s archaic water supply system, neighbors near Queen Lane reservoir in East Falls rally for a community agreement to protect quality of life. 

Whether you drink Philly tap water or not, I think we can all agree it’s important that the city’s water supply is clean, safe, and reliable. This fact was driven home earlier this year, when a chemical spill in the Delaware River kicked off a minor panic and a mad dash for bottled water that emptied local shelves for days. It also identified for authorities critical vulnerabilities in our infrastructure.

Specifically, we lack the ability to redirect water if an intake needs to be shut down for some reason. Industrial accidents are just one threat that could contaminate a city water source. For instance, extreme weather events, cyberattacks, and domestic terrorism are three additional perils growing in these days of climate and political turbulence.

So this summer when FEMA announced $162 million to fund “resiliency projects” in mid-Atlantic states, it was good to see Queen Lane Water Treatment Plant in East Falls on the list for upgrades: two new generators to protect the pump station to “500 year flood” levels. This project is just one of a whole series of badly-needed improvements underway for the city’s antiquated water system, funded by $500 million from Biden’s infrastructure bill.

The city’s 25-year Water Revitalization Plan outlines steps for “100% redundancy” so our water supply can be rerouted on a dime. Part of this plan involves connecting Queen Lane reservoir with the Belmont Water Treatment plant on City Ave with a new pipe across the Schuylkill River.

With all this new activity, it makes sense that the Philadelphia Water Department would want to bring their zoning up to speed. Currently, the Queen Lane treatment plant is erroneously zoned “residential” which basically requires PWD to have to ask the community’s permission for any use other than single family dwelling. As you can imagine, that’s a lot of time and money the city would probably rather not be spending unnecessarily.

So PWD (along with the Planning Commission) asked Councilmember Curtis Jones to introduce legislation to rezone Queen Lane with a “civic use” designation. And for a moment there it looked like Curtis was rolling with it but after pressure from East Falls Community Council, he pulled the legislation back to allow neighbors time to negotiate a community agreement.

Meanwhile, EFCC has hired a lawyer and appears to be squaring off over an air-tight and enforceable contract with PWD that guarantees five pages and “wants” and “don’t wants.” Which is where this video from EFCC’s “Let’s Get Organized” rally, below, comes in. As you can see, it’s not a big crowd but it’s a hopeful one. I’d like to be optimistic, too.

As a neighbor, I’m sympathetic to their concerns for East Falls, and as a Philadelphian I bristle at the thought that a city agency should expect a free pass to muck around with any neighborhood’s streetscape at their own whims. Thumbs up for community watchdogs, by all means.

On the other hand – I’m a big fan of clean drinking water. And also I’m getting uncomfortable flashbacks from 2015, when Philadelphia University sought their institutional zoning and I am only half-joking when I call the experience of attending those meetings traumatic. 🙀

“I guess we just do these meetings every month until there’s a vote or something?” I’d naively written, after two hours at an exhausting EFCC Zoning and Land Use Committee meeting where a seemingly endless stream of neighbors picked apart a 30 Year Master Plan that was likely to never be specific or enforceable enough for the small, vocal contingency who dominated proceedings.

I had been shocked at the time to learn that these talks had been going on for five years, over issues like shrubbery, signage, and balls on people’s lawns. At one point, President Spinelli was like, “We did virtually every single change in response to the community,” and he was right, but then it seemed the goalpost would move. And everyone was always so angry. 🤦‍♀️

It would take another year for the University to (narrowly) obtain their new zoning designation  — after SIX YEARS of meetings that were quite honestly painful to sit through sometimes, but that’s beside the point. The real issue now I guess is more of a question:

How long should East Falls have to hash out a community agreement with PWD, considering the critical need for clean safe water for the whole city? 🤔

Three months? Six months? No doubt everyone has their own idea of a reasonable timeline, their own thoughts on what a fair compromise would look like between neighbors and city planners. Maybe there’s a way to respectfully streamline the process..? I’m all for community engagement but I’d hate to think of a handful of homeowners putting all our lives at risk for years over curb cuts and plantings.

EFCC is definitely right about one thing, though: East Falls could really use strong Council leadership right now. Curtis Jones, I hope you’re paying attention.

What do you think? Please leave your comments below or email For more information, click on the links provided here and in the video’s transcription below. Questions? PWD has a special email for community concerns surrounding their 25-year plan:

Email announcement 12/1/23

East Falls Community Council “Let’s Get Organized” Rally for Queen Lane Reservoir
Saturday, December 2, 2023 at 2pm

Bill Epstein, EFCC Board member at-Large
Paul Elia, member of EFCC Zoning Committee
Lawyer aka Paul Boni, specializing in land use, zoning, and preservation law
+ an assortment of Neighbors (use time stamps to see who’s speaking in video)


LAWYER  00:00

…<usually> the community has a real good idea about what a project is. Here, we don’t really have a really good idea. We know that over the next several decades or so the plant is going to be completely reconstructed. So, to us that sounds like a lot. There’s a lot of questions, about what that means. The water department is giving us some generalities about what it may involve. But really no specifics or really nothing that’s not highly qualified, but that’s what we’re thinking about at the present time. And it’s just verbal, and we don’t really know for sure what the what the plans are going to be. So that’s concerning to us. So there are two ways, it’s a two-part way that we’re trying to go about this. First is that, you know, we think we have, and we’re trying to develop a lot of parameters, about things that we want and the things that we don’t. So things that we want are like all these stone walls to be preserved. We don’t want them ripped up. They’re a feature of our streets, and they should be maintained over the long term. And these basic setbacks that we have from the street are good, we don’t want all of a sudden the water treatment plant to come all the way closer to the street. So those are some examples of some things that we want. And some things that we don’t want, you know, if we use our imagination, we don’t want ugly, noisy equipment, too close to the streets to the houses. We want them further away, as far away as possible. We want them buffered with trees, plantings. We want ugly equipment to be screened if it’s on top of roofs. If there’s some sort of tall antenna, we would like that as far away as possible. So, you know, this is like five pages of stuff, that we want and what we don’t want. And what we’d like that to be is in a written contract with signatures so that if they violate it, we can enforce it.


Is that common?

LAWYER 02:43

It’s common, it’s certainly common with private landowners. I think it’s common, or it’s been done before with the city. But, you know, sometimes big institutions aren’t used to interacting well with the community. Think they know it all, you know, that’s somewhat human nature. So we’re pushing on them to be as specific as they can put things in writing them to stand by it. Knowing that, of course, things may change. And maybe they’ll have good reasons to but at least we’ll have something to hang on to, and some leverage. The second thing we’re doing (I’ll take questions in a second) The second part of what we’re doing is, there’s a process in the zoning code called a master plan, a lot of universities operate their zoning by master plan where they have a huge complex acres and acres of land. And they have a lot of flexibility with what they can do in zoning, but they have a master plan. And they always have to update the master plan and abide by it. And that master plan goes to a hearing at the planning commission, and ultimately gets approved maybe with changes. And then it goes to city council and ultimately gets, major amendments get approved by city council. At those two groups, the public has an opportunity to comment and weigh in and ask questions help shape. So that’s a check. That’s somewhat of a check on the system. And so we would like the water department to be required to adhere to a master plan. You know, also all these things I’ll just say in summary is that it kind of slows down their thinking a little bit, forces them to engage with other people. And I think ultimately, the process ends up with a better result. Because it’s not just a few people sitting in their office, figuring it out and then trying to sell it to everybody, once they’ve already figured it out. So we’re hoping to be a part of it as it gets developed, not just to hear about it at the end when they’re trying to sell it to us. We know how sometimes cities do that. So we gave them a draft of our agreement, we asked for the master plan. Very comprehensive draft, we’ve kept the council member involved. And we are going to sit down with water department on Friday. And, you know, hopefully engage in a series of meetings where we can get as much as we can get, you know, we’re trying. This is part of it to show community concern. So we really appreciate you coming out, they’ll be more opportunities, we’ll try and get a petition out in all the ways. Now it’s important for the city to see that the voters are interested. Questions?


Are we behind here? What’s our timeline?

LAWYER 06:03

So, you know, a bill was introduced in city council to rezone this, to give them their by right zoning. And it looked like, you know, the train was moving down the tracks, and we asked the council person Curtis Jones to pull it and reintroduce it in the new year. And he agreed, he agreed. So we felt it was putting too much pressure on us to have the Rules Committee meeting this week. So we’re trying our hardest to work fast. To make as much progress as we can by the time the bill is reintroduced. You know, we understand that. We can be under some pressure, we just don’t want to be under too much.


City Planning Commission already voted to move the bill forward. They approved it. There were two nays in the vote. Is there any chance that we can get more nays on the City Planning Commission that maybe they didn’t — I mean, a lot of people just didn’t know what they were voting for, I don’t think  Yeah. I guess when the bill is reintroduced, it will have to go before the planning commission again. You know, the planning commission is an important part of the process. They are not city council. So…  But it was also pretty clear from that meeting, they had no idea of the time frame, or the money involved from federal and state in this project. Or the impact on the neighbors.  I mean, they just —  They didn’t listen, there wasn’t enough opportunity for neighbors to speak.  It was not their concern.  But having listened to both planning and zoning meetings, they haven’t done their homework, they haven’t read any of this stuff. And it all seems like it just came out of nowhere. So that was our impression.

LAWYER 08:25

I mean, I think the plan, the planning commission is a part of the process. They’re not the end all, be all. I think the most important is to focus on city council. That’s where the, that’s where your leverage exists.


So letters to Curtis Jones, letters to who else?

LAWYER 08:43

Well, we’ll let you know, we haven’t — I don’t want to speak because we haven’t really, you know, we’re making some progress. We have to see how it goes. There may be some setbacks along the way. You know, we’ll have to be a little, time our advocacy. You know, I think —  So stay tuned.


I do want to also remind the community that what you’re looking at here where there’s room for you know walking dogs and otherwise was the outcome of neighborhood involvement.  Had it not been, the Water Department <inaudible, something like PWD would not have been as responsive to community needs if the neighbors hadn’t been so involved??> So you know, those days when you think you’ll stay home, remember that this is the kind of outcome of that kind of engagement. And if they change the zoning — I really appreciate your point about why to support the new zoning but once that zoning gets changed, we would have all leverage gone unless we have some kind of agreement with the Water Department.

LAWYER 09:45

You always have some leverage….


Right but individually as households, individually we’re not going to individually sue the city, we’re just gonna lose.  So that’s a different approach.


I would say if it hadn’t been for Paul Elia and his efforts 15 years ago, that fence would have been here. The lights would be shining all over the place.


Well we only have to compare with what they chose to do on the other side.

PAUL ELIA  10:15

And they had floodlighting in concertina with no green space, and no informal dog run. So they really worked with us. And we’re hopeful that that spirit continues today.


We had to push them for that. They wouldn’t have done it if we hadn’t pushed them.


Paul, you started off by saying that this was improperly zoned and they’re seeking to have it rezoned. Are they doing that now because they have a plan in mind and they’re not telling us? And that’s why our signs say, “Where’s the plan?”

PAUL ELIA  11:08

Yes. It’s a 30 year plan. And we’ve seen nothing. We’ve asked for a master plan. We asked what’s the plan? We asked what, you know, changes were gonna be made. And we’ve got no information. They said it’s too preliminary to share. And then we found out that they didn’t need to have a master plan.

LAWYER 11:35

But I mean, one could argue that if you don’t have a plan yet, and you don’t really know what you’re going to be doing yet, well then maybe, maybe it doesn’t need to be resolved yet. Maybe let’s revisit all of this, when you can tell us something.


One of the members asked if by not doing this now, we jeopardize federal money, and the answer was…? So this does affect the entire city?


Let’s just say if the city’s going to hold <inaudible> but if I want to change something, I have to submit a plan. So why don’t they? At the end of the day, if I <inaudible> then they need to have a plan too. Or otherwise I don’t need a plan either if I want to redo my whole house, you know? It goes two ways.

PAUL ELIA  12:28

And initially, they told us everything on this site was being demoed and rebuilt, now they’ve they’ve stepped back from that. But still, we’ve they’ve not told us what would stay and what would go. Where entrance driveways would be, whether the stone wall, the grounds, and the setbacks are going to be maintained. Or, you know, am I going to have klieg lights into my living room?

LAWYER 13:01

Are they tell us things like we’ll try our best

<laughter, chatter>


And even if we believe them, who comes along 10 years into a 35 year project?

LAWYER 13:18

Oh, yes. I don’t think it’s a personal thing. It’s an institutional thing. They’re pushing and we’re pushing back. Hopefully we’ll find the right place.


So the motion or whatever it is before the council that was tabled when they put it forward in January — does that restrict them to at least being the property would only be for waterworks?

LAWYER  13:45



Or would —  that would restrict them at least to that use?

LAWYER 13:46




PAUL ELIA  13:48

Now, we have in the flyer asked for donations. Paul has been very amenable and reasonable in terms of his fee, but we’re asking for donations because a number of us here have already written checks. So if you’re so inclined…

<administrative chatter, fade out>

Queen Lane Reservoir (map)

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