It may shock PlanPhilly readers, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t come right out and say it: for many people, the zoning process is secondary, at best, to the developments that must go through it. The proposed 128-unit mixed-use project from Brown Hill Development at 205 Race Street may be one such case.
“We support responsible development,” said Graham Copeland, director of Old City District, a municipal authority and Registered Community Organization in whose boundaries the property sits.
Councilman Mark Squilla introduced a bill last week that rezones the area surrounding the property and would allow the 205 Race project to be built by right. Some in the Old City Civic Association enthusiastically object to both the scale of the project and the use of legislation, rather than the standard zoning process, to bring it to bear.
“We’re really focused on the approval of the project, as opposed to weighing in on the legislative process,” Copeland said.
Old City District sent a letter to the Planning Commission last fall saying that its Economic Development Committee had voted unanimously to support the project. Harvey Spear, vice-chair of the OCD Board of Directors, said the authority’s entire 19-member board wants to see 205 Race Street built.
“[Councilman Squilla] has been very attentive to everybody in this area,” Spear added. “He’s for the betterment of the area.”
As a business improvement district, of course, Old City District’s interests are somewhat predetermined: it supports economic development, tourism, safety and cleanliness, and so on. But it’s not alone in its support for the proposed 16-story tower by the Ben Franklin Bridge. So far, 544 people have signed an online petition supporting the project.
“I think it’ll be wonderful,” said Barry Belsky, manager of Mr. Barstool, a restaurant supply company directly diagonal from the 205 Race site. “I think we need that.”
Belsky said the now-vacant lot attracts trash-dumping and that it’s an “eyesore” in the neighborhood. He’s also very fond of the last design of the project that he saw, which he said “looks like it would be built on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.”
“I thought [neighborhood groups] should be kissing the developers’ feet,” Belsky said.
Wynn Bauer, who works in a nearby studio, said he hadn’t seen the proposal but thinks the site is ripe for development, even of a 16-story apartment building.
“It’s on the outskirts of Old City and it’s right by the bridge,” Bauer said, “so if it’s going to go up, that’s the place to do it.”
Vanessa Whitaker, a bartender at the Race Street Café, which faces north directly onto the empty lot, said she was dubious about the prospects of anything being built on the site, which has been both vacant and buzzed about for years. She worried that a 16-story building would “ruin the view of the bridge.”
Greg Hill, of Brown Hill Development, said that his group had been in discussion with the Planning Commission about how to move the project forward for about a year, and that Councilman Squilla came in toward the end of those discussions. The rezoning, he said, was “not a plea we made to City Council.”
“By no means was this [bill] a favor granted to a developer,” Hill said, but rather the product of a series of conversations with the Planning Commission about the development conditions near the Ben Franklin Bridge.
Keystone Outdoor Advertising had worried that the building would block eastwardly views of its billboard, which stands in the otherwise empty lot directly east of 205 Race, and Hill said it’s “not always productive” to go into zoning hearings until various interested parties come to some sort of agreement. The developers have agreed to adjust the design of the tower so that bridge drivers can clearly see the Keystone billboard.
PlanPhilly asked Hill, whose company also built the 12-story condo complex at 108 Arch Street, whether he was worried that the billboard might be a turn-off to his potential tenants.
“Obviously, we’d prefer to have a clear view out to the river, but the fact is we’re building in the city,” Hill said.
Hill said that, pending the adoption of Squilla’s bill, the developer will need to pull zoning and building permits, and he hopes to start construction by the end of the year.
Dan Reisman, an attorney for Brown Hill, defended Squilla's bill as the correct reaction to the development conditions near the bridge.
“I really see this as sound, rational land-use planning that addresses a group of similarly situated properties,” said Reisman. “And that’s really the essence of zoning law.”
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.