In the end, commissioners gave their OK to two zoning changes to the area bounded by Girard Avenue and N. 9th, Thompson and Hutchinson streets: An amendment to the North Philadelphia Redevelopment Area Plan, changing the proposed land use from mixed-commercial and industrial to commercial. And an amendment to the Southwest Temple Urban Renewal Plan, changing the proposed land use from mixed commercial and industrial to area shopping center.
Commissioners also gave their blessing to a redevelopment agreement with 901 Girard Associates LP for the development of a supermarket and retail shopping plaza. The agreement allows the redevelopment authority to sell two parcels – 1221 N. Hutchinson Street and 1224 rear N. 9th Street, to 901 Girard Associates, which already controls the remainder of the block, Community Planner David Fecteau said.
Fecteau told the commission that decades ago, when the redevelopment authority wrote the plan for this area “we had an eye toward keeping industry there. Well, the industry left that area.”
The development site, which is now vacant, is mostly surrounded mostly by residential properties, Fecteau said. There is a tennis center just to the west, he said, and “what was supposed to be a shopping center” a little bit further west that contains a daycare center and fast food restaurants.
The plans 901 Girard Associates has submitted to the RDA call for a supermarket and a retail strip center, each being about 20,000 square feet. “We're not going to get a lot of retail there. It's not going to be one of the heavy-hitters. But it will be in community-serving retail,” Fecteau said.
While commissioners amended the documents that set out the development goals for the area, this project still needs zoning changes, Fecteau said. The current zoning of the project area is split, with some portion industrial and another part commercial, he said. A zoning bill changing it to “some sort of commercial that would allow this kind of retail” is expected to be introduced when council is back in session, and that will come before the planning commission, Fecteau said.
Planning commission staff also believes that even if the zoning was changed to commercial, the developer would still have to go to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for relief to allow the project as planned, Fecteau said.
The planning commission is asking the civic associations in the area to hold one joint community meeting with the developer to discuss the project before it reaches city council and/or the ZBA. The communities include Ludlow, Yorktown and West and East Poplar. Commissioner Beth Miller suggested that the Girard Coalition also be included.
Planning staff is also working with the developer in attempt to come up with some design changes, Fecteau said. Staff is concerned about the impact the back of the structure would have on the residential properties behind it on Thompson Street. “We want a development that respects the surroundings,” he said.
Miller noted that there is already a supermarket at Progress Plaza, and another planned at 2nd and Girard.
“Do we know that this is a food desert?” she asked. “Does it have to be a supermarket? Is this the demand of the community?”
Fecteau said staff was pondering if the grocery store would serve a different market between Progress Plaza, geared toward more affordable shopping, or the proposed 2nd and Girard grocery store, which is supposed to be upscale.
But if the market doesn't support a grocery store, it will have to be something else, he said.
Miller wondered about the viability of the project considering the status of the plaza across the street, with the day care and fast food stores.
Commissioner Nilda Ruiz expressed concern that another grocery store might pull customers from the existing ones.
Planning Commission Executive Director Gary Jastrzab said that a grocery store may not be possible on the site, but it is up to the developer to crunch the numbers and determine if that would work, or what other retail would work. “With these actions, what staff is saying is that we are generally OK with the idea of commercial and retail uses at this location,” he said.
“It's a very automobile-centric use,” Commissioner Nancy Rogo-Trainer said. She wondered how the neighborhood feels about that.
Fecteau said this is one of the discussions commission staff is having. “We do want to see something a little more urban,” he said. But staff also realizes that it's a difficult site to build on, he said, as visibility from Girard Avenue is essential. “It's going to take a creative architect,” he said.
The developer was not present to answer questions.
Rogo-Trainer also said that with the number of parking lots nearby on Girard, “I would hate to see another one, full or empty, added unless it was absolutely necessary for the use of this site.” The commission just heard about the city's focus on Greenworks Philadelphia and porous paving, and adding a large swath of asphalt makes no sense, she said.
Fecteau said the parking lot issue is also on the table in planning staff conversations with the developer.
During the community comment portion of the meeting, West Poplar Neighborhood Advisory Committee member Benjamin Jennings said the retail plaza across the street from the site has a daycare, fast-food and a dollar store, and that's a big improvement over what was a long-vacant building.
Even though there is a new grocery store at Progress Plaza and one proposed for Second and Girard, “it still doesn't cover the population in between Spring Garden and Girard,” he said. “He asked the commission to approve the changes staff was recommending, so things could proceed to the next step.“We do have an interest in seeing what the developer puts on the table,” Jennings said. The vacant property had a Pantry Pride store on it 20 years ago, he said. “We're interested in seeing what it can be.”
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