The Philadelphia City Planning Commission voted Thursday to approve Councilman Mark Squilla’s bill that would add a small subset to the Old City zoning overlay, allowing for larger and denser projects in the area surrounding the approach to the Ben Franklin Bridge.
The bill provides size and density bonuses to projects in CMX-3 lots in the area between I-95, Race Street, New Street, and 4th Street. In approving the bill, the Commission recommended that Squilla consider removing the area between 3rd and 4th streets from the overlay, in response to concerns from a few Old City residents who worried that some lots in that area could be overdeveloped.
The bill was conceived as a response to the proposed development at 205 Race Street, a 16-story, 128-unit mixed-used apartment complex. Some members of the Old City Civic Association opposed the scale of the building, as did Keystone Outdoor Advertising, which owns a billboard across the street from the site.
Both Councilman Squilla and Commission Chairman Alan Geenberger have said that while the bill was created with that project in mind, it responds to real development challenges in the surrounding area posed by the scale of the bridge.
Joe Schiavo, a member of Old City Civic, but testifying on Thursday simply as a neighborhood resident, said the bill “seems to be insensitive” to the historic Old City district. He said that the permitted size of developments under the bill could threaten existing historic buildings, such as St. George’s Church at 4th and New streets.
“It is a bill that maybe on its face suggests the target property, 205 Race, but in fact there are others that are of concern,” Schiavo said.
Rob Kettell, an Old City Civic board member, said that the bill allows for inappropriately large projects in the area. He said that potential development could corrode the “important gateway” of the Ben Franklin Bridge area, passing out conceptual renderings of massive buildings blocking the westward views of the city skyline for motorists crossing the bridge into Philadelphia. He said that large development in the area could turn the gateway into a “cavernous” and “gloomy” place. He asked the Commission to “reject [the bill] outright.”
Graham Copeland, director of the Old City District, testified in support of the bill, saying it would bring people and economic development to the community, and activate the Race Street corridor to the Delaware River waterfront. Rick Snyderman, a local gallery owner, said he supports the 205 Race Street project and reminded the Commission that “no particular organization represents [Old City’s] interests in the main.”
Alan Greenberger said the bill is one example among several which shows that the new zoning code is not a completely satisfactory guide to development citywide. He said that if the Commission were to defer too much to the code-prescribed zoning process, the adjacent billboard owner would have the opportunity to “jam [205 Race] up forever.” He read the Planning Commissioners a quote from Don Elliott, a former consultant to the Zoning Code Commission: “No code is born perfect. To have to make changes is not a sign of failure; it’s a sign that you’re awake.”
The bill has not yet been scheduled for a committee hearing.
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.