From the outset, city planners crafting the Lower North District Plan have said its neighborhoods present challenges far greater than those earlier district plans tackled, related mostly to a sharp population decline and problems that stemmed from that loss of people and jobs.
The preliminary recommendations shared with the Philadelphia Planning Commission Tuesday reflect this difference. The Lower North District Comprehensive Plan will not just have a geographic focus areas like earlier plans, but also a focus topic: Vacant land.
The Lower North District Comprehensive Plan, which will be one of 18 district-level portions of the city's new land use strategy, covers the neighborhoods of North Philadelphia, North Central, Norris Square, Olde Kensington, South Kensington, West Kensington, Yorktown, Ludlow, Brewerytown, Green Hills, Cecil B Moore, Sharswood and Strawberry Mansion.
Planner David Fecteau outlined some preliminary recommendations, which he said were partly based on feedback during the first batch of public input sessions and meetings with community leaders who make up a steering committee. The ideas will also be presented at the next community meeting, to be held at 6:30 p.m. on Tues., Oct. 29 at the Columbia North YMCA, 1400 N. Broad Street. After a brief presentaion, planners will take questions, then participants will break into groups to provide feedback. Learn more here.
The recommendations include offering special price incentives for purchasing property in areas with high vacancy and tax delinquency rates, re-zoning industrial properties not likely to serve that role again for residential and commercial uses, focusing commercial development along key commercial corridors, adding transit-oriented residential and commercial development along the area's transit corridors, and preserving some homes for single-family housing while delineating a group of blocks for apartments housing.
Part of the vacant property focus would mesh with ideas in legislation introduced by City Council President Darrell Clarke earlier this year that would give special pricing to people who buy properties in areas with a high-percentage of city-owned land, high vacancy rates and high tax delinquency rates.
The Lower North District “contains 4,000 vacant homes that keep real estate prices unnaturally low,” Fecteau said. The district contains one-third of Philadelphia's vacant land.
The preliminary recommendations call for establishing zones where the special prices on city-owned property would be in effect, including two in Strawberry Mansion and others in North Central and near Norris Square.
Fecteau told planning commissioners at their Tuesday meeting that some investment is occurring in these neighborhoods, but it is not evenly distributed. The hottest spots for both residential and commercial projects are near Temple University and in the southern end of the district, he said.
Residents who participated in the first sessions told planners they want new homes to be built near existing homes, SEPTA stops, parks and recreation centers. They want any vacant land not used for housing to be used for purposes that benefit the community.
“The average (participant) shops in the district, which is good, or just outside the district,” he said. They also shop in Center City and South Philadelphia, and would prefer to shop more closer to home if the quality of goods and services available were improved and the shopping areas were clean, he said.
The geographic focus areas were selected “because we believe targeting limited investment here will have the largest impact district-wide.”
One focus area is Ridge Avenue. Planners believe there will be demand for housing in this area within the next 10 years. There is a lot of city-owned land in the area of Ridge Avenue and Oxford, he said, and some has been assembled into large parcels. One possible use: Larger-format retail, but that doesn't mean big-box stores. Fecteau suggested a 2,000-square foot green grocer, or other similar retail, perhaps paired with housing.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to tear down a low-income high-rise in the area and “replace it with mixed income housing,” Fecteau said. “Spreading people out more, and having a mix of incomes to support middle income communities, is a good way to stabilize property values,” he said.
While PHA likely won't be taking down these apartments for almost a decade, they will be building some of the replacement units sooner than that, he said. “This is a tremendous opportunity” for planners and PHA to work together, he said.
Planners will also be looking to work together with St. Joe's Prep as it expands, he said.
The second geographical focus area: American Street near Germantown Avenue.
There are “obsolete industrial parcels” there that “the market is already trying to push into residential/commercial use,” Fecteau said. The plan would foster that, while also preserving some of the industrial zone for activities that generate jobs – industrial and otherwise.
Another preliminary recommendation: Landscaping parcels deemed tough to develop and located at intersections to both beautify the area and help manage storm water. This would be done in partnership with the water department, Fecteau said.
West Philadelphia resident Kurt Constantine asked, “What makes a property not viable for development?” He said that there are vacant parcels in his community, too, and many of them are vacant because of city tear-downs. “A vast amount of demolition has occurred. Since you tore down with the promise of rebuilding, why are we now told nothing can be built?”
Fecteau said that some properties are torn down because they are not safe, but the city does not necessarily “take the title.”
A property may remain vacant because no one can locate the owners, or because there is no market for development, or because no subsidies for building are available, he said.
But sometimes property stays vacant because the lot size is too small or irregularly shaped. Zoning relief could be sought, but sometimes that's more trouble than it's worth, he said. These are the “not viable for development” type of properties.
No one from the neighborhoods within the plan spoke at the meeting.
Kellie Patrick Gates writes about planning, neighborhood development and the Central Delaware Waterfront. A journalist for more than two decades, she worked for daily newspapers in Central Pennsylvania, Upstate New York and South Florida before coming to Philadelphia in 2003 to write for the Inquirer. Her work has appeared on PlanPhilly since 2007, and she also writes Love, the Inquirer's weekly wedding column. A native of Elk County, Pa., Kellie lives with her husband, Gary, and their dog and two cats.