First District Councilman Mark Squilla introduced a bill in City Council Thursday morning that would amend the Center City zoning overlay to allow larger construction projects in the area surrounding the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. The bill adds a “Bridge Approach” area to the Old City subsection of the Center City Overlay; the new area is bounded by Race Street, 4th Street, New Street, and Interstate 95.
The bill is intended “to draw activity to the area surrounding the Race Street Connector to encourage its use so that residents and visitors may re-connect to the waterfront.” Under the bill, buildings in CMX-3 districts within the Bridge Approach area are eligible for Floor Area Bonuses, may occupy 100% of the lot area, and require no side yards.
One of the biggest CMX-3 lots in the new Bridge Approach area is at the corner of 2nd and Race streets, the site of the proposed 205 Race project from developer Brown Hill. That project was scheduled for a hearing at the Zoning Board of Adjustment earlier this year, but the application for zoning relief was withdrawn at the last minute. Last week, Dan Reisman, the developer’s attorney, told PlanPhilly that the project is still under review. An aide to Councilman Squilla said Thursday that the bill was drafted with that project in mind.
Neither Dan Reisman nor Councilman Mark Squilla was immediately available for comment.
The developers of 205 Race have said that the project is intended to mirror the scale not of the other buildings in the neighborhood, but of the Ben Franklin Bridge. The introduction of the bill responds to that concept, saying, “the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, although architecturally pleasing, provides development challenges in its very near vicinity due to its large size and the constraints it places on visibility in the immediate area …”
Joe Schiavo of Old City Civic Association said that Councilman Squilla had called him on Wednesday night to tell him he planned to introduce the bill, but that that was the first time he’d heard of it. Old City Civic Association has objected to the height and bulk of the 205 Race proposal. In a letter to the zoning board last August, the Association wrote to oppose a handful of requested zoning variances.
“We bring to the Board’s attention that the OCCA Developments Committee is welcoming of the contemporary styling of the proposed development,” the letter stated. “However, our objections and issues with the proposed development scheme rest with the applicable standards of the zoning code, and the developer’s willful non-compliance with those standards.”
Joe Schiavo said Squilla’s bill takes a “different approach” than many in that it doesn’t change the zoning for one specific project but for a larger area, but noted that he wants to read the bill before commenting further.
Also on Thursday, Councilman Bill Greenlee introduced a bill in City Council on behalf of Council President Darrell Clarke that would change the way curb cuts are regulated in the zoning code. The bill was drafted by the Council offices and members of the City Planning Commission.
The code currently permits developers to build one curb cut per surface parking lot, 24 feet wide or smaller, or two curb cuts for entrance and exit, 12 feet wide apiece. The bill introduced Thursday would make that regulation effective in residential zoning districts only.
Developers of non-residential projects have apparently had trouble with the provision since the new code took effect last August.
Council President Darrell Clarke has introduced a bill rezoning a long-vacant lot at 9th & Girard to allow for the development of a Bottom Dollar grocery store. Last month, the Planning Commission voted to approve that bill, but recommended that three of its provisions, amending portions of the zoning code, be removed. One of those amendments would allow the developer to build a curb cut bigger than the code allows. The developers said it was a matter of safety for cars coming and going—that 24 feet is too narrow for high-volume parking lots like those at grocery stores. They also plan to build a much larger curb cut toward the back of the lot for trucks delivering food.
At the Commission meeting, Chairman Alan Greenberger said that this problem had come up repeatedly, and alluded to the Administration working on a way to resolve it. This bill is apparently that solution.
A few weeks ago, after the Commission meeting, Council President Clarke said he was ready to push his bill as he’d introduced it in spite of the Planning Commission’s concerns about the amendments. If the bill introduced on Thursday passes, Clarke can remove at least one of them.
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter based in Philadelphia. His work has been featured in Philadelphia magazine, Hidden City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, City & State, and other publications. He covered development, zoning policy, historic preservation, and city government for PlanPhilly from 2011-2016.