Developer Jeffrey Brown is hoping to transform the vacant lot he owns at 205 Race Street into a 16-story, 128-unit apartment building with commercial uses on the ground floor, he and project architects explained to Old City Civic Association’s developments committee Tuesday morning. Earlier this month, the Department of Licenses and Inspections refused the plans, pointing to six provisions of the zoning code the project would violate.
After the presentation, the Old City Civic Association voted 11-to-1 to oppose the project, which is being developed in a C-3 zoning district, within the Old City overlay and historic district. Joe Schiavo, vice chair of OCCA’s developments committee, said the group would draft a letter articulating both its opposition to the variances requested and its thoughts on the positive aspects of the project to present to the ZBA next week.
Because its zoning applications were submitted in July, the project is subject to the old zoning code. The developer first presented a similar, but shorter, version of the proposal to the Planning Commission last fall. Since then, according to Jeffrey Brown, the project was stalled in the Streets Department.
When the project was presented to the Planning Commission last fall, some neighbors and OCCA members complained about the height and massing, and the potential that the building would block the Race Street view of the Ben Franklin Bridge and the Delaware River waterfront. The plans presented to OCCA Tuesday actually call for the building to be even taller than previously proposed.
The portion of the project that fronts on Race Street would be 5 stories and 60 feet high, up from 52 feet in the previous plan. A residential tower, to be set back 14 ½ feet from Race along the Ben Franklin Bridge, would be 197 ½ feet high, up from 178 feet in the earlier plan. The first story of the building would be dedicated to commercial uses, and the developer hopes to bring in a big client such as a supermarket to fill a large retail space.
Peter Gluck, the project’s architect, said the large retail space would be a “terrific amenity for the city.”
The proposal exceeds the 65-foot height cap and the 70-foot width cap contained in Old City’s overlay. It also violates the 450% maximum gross floor area of the C-3 district, with a proposed total area of 695 percent of the lot.
Joe Schiavo said that OCCA had supported a plan floated by Brown several years ago to build a ten-story condominium building on the lot. That plan also exceeded the 65-foot height limit, and Schiavo said that the current plan “feels abusive of the support [OCCA] offered” for the earlier proposal.
“We’re less likely to be tolerant of the height when the project is so conspicuously an overbuild,” Schiavo said.
Hoping to head off criticism, Gluck pointed out that the plans called for a staggered or “broken” façade on Race Street, which he says avoids a monolithic feel to the building and fits in with the character of other buildings on the street. The tower has been set back and angled to provide a greater view of the Ben Franklin Bridge than last year’s proposal offered, Gluck said.
Gluck also argued that the nearly-200-foot tower itself helps transition from the grand scale of the bridge to the small scale of Old City. But Schiavo pointed out that the building would be the tallest in the area, and that it was inappropriate for the developer to compare the project scale to that of the bridge.
“It’s just totally out of context with everything in the neighborhood except the bridge, and the bridge isn’t a building,” Schiavo said.
The proposal also includes plans for 34 interior parking spots, accessible via Florist Street, which runs parallel to the Bridge. This does not meet the minimum of 90 parking spaces (7 per 10 units) required under the old zoning code, nor would it meet the 38-space minimum requirement of the new code (3 spaces per 10 units).
An appeal hearing at the Zoning Board of Adjustment is scheduled for next Wednesday, Sept. 5, at 2 p.m. In the appeal, the developer’s attorney, Daniel Reisman, said that if the ZBA refuses to grant the variance, it will create an unnecessary hardship.
Joe Schiavo feels that any potential hardship is self-imposed by Jeffrey Brown, who bought the lot for $1.288 million in November 2001.
“If you stand at the site of 2nd and Race,” Schiavo said, “and you look up toward the [150-foot] high billboard, and you imagine a bulky structure 47 feet taller than the billboard, then you get a sense of how big this thing really is.”
If the ZBA decides to grant the zoning relief requested, Jeffrey Brown said, construction would likely begin in the first quarter of next year.