The days of heavy industry on Washington Avenue are mostly behind us, said dozens of business owners and residents who showed up at the Planning Commission Tuesday afternoon to support the development of a 35-unit apartment complex at 16th and Washington.
The developers need variances for the project—multi-family residential and certain proposed commercial uses are prohibited in I-2, the property’s zoning classification—and the zoning board asked the Commission to weigh in on whether the exceptions should be granted after a recent hearing. The Commission ultimately voted unanimously to support the granting of the variances, after two hours of discussion about the past and future of Washington Ave. and the neighborhoods immediately to its north and south.
The property in question is on the northwest corner of 16th and Washington. It contains a supermarket set back behind a large surface parking lot which is, in fact, two properties; you could hardly tell that from looking at it. The proposed five-story development would sit on a triangle of land closest to the corner. It would contain 35 apartments, 20 parking spaces, and retail space on the ground floor.
The property sits within the boundaries of the South of South Neighborhood Association, which roundly supports the project. In fact, all but three of the 20 witnesses who testified at the Commission support the project. Owners of industrial businesses on the Washington Avenue corridor said that they’re not planning to expand in place. Some plan to move west to expand, others to the Northeast. There is plenty of vacant land in the area, they said, but there is little demand for industrial development.
The Planning Commission had determined otherwise while drafting the District Plan for the Central District, of which Washington Avenue is the southern border. The plan recommends that much of the western portion of Washington Avenue, including the property in question, be rezoned to ICMX, an industrial/commercial mixed-use category. Since that category would not allow some of the uses proposed for the 1601 Washington development—and even though it has not been remapped yet—the zoning board asked the Commission to weigh in.
The Commission stipulated that its support for the project is narrow. David Orphanides, an attorney for the developer, as well as members of SOSNA, testified that IRMX—industrial residential mixed-use zoning—would be better for Washington Avenue. Some members of the Commission seemed sympathetic to that suggestion, but all agreed that it should be part of a larger discussion. The project would be allowed almost by-right under IRMX zoning.
There is some opposition to the development. Joseph Beller, an attorney representing the owners of the supermarket which currently uses the property for parking, said his clients understand that it’s not their property, and in fact support some type of construction there, but that the development should be commercial rather than residential.
Sylvia Wilkins, a Point Breeze resident, said that the amount of residential development that’s taken place both in Point Breeze and the Graduate Hospital area over the last decade has been astounding, and that despite the demand for more housing, what the area really needs is commercial development. The area should be zoned ICMX, she said, and development should fall in line with that category.
Residential housing on Washington Avenue, Wilkins said, is “just not necessary when you have two vibrant neighborhoods less than half a block away.”
Madeline Shikomba, a resident of the area north of Washington, said she also supports commercial and industrial development on Washington, and that residential development will not generate jobs that area residents need.
But Beller, Wilkins, and Shikomba were outnumbered, and the Commission supported their opponents, even though its own staff had recommended that the ICMX suggestion be reinforced, and the variances disapproved.
Andrew Dalzell, programs coordinator* for SOSNA, said that his group not only voted 30-1 to support the particular project, but that it has favored IRMX zoning on Washington Avenue in all the long-term planning meetings it has participated in. Zoning the area for industrial and commercial use only would keep many properties vacant, he said, and reinforce the division between Point Breeze and the Graduate Hospital area.
“Do we want [Washington Avenue] to be a mote between two neighborhoods,” Dalzell said, “or do we want it to connect those two neighborhoods?”
The project is also supported by 2nd-District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.
Also on Tuesday, the Planning Commission voted to:
Support the development of 75 townhomes at Catharine Street and Columbus Boulevard, in Queen Village. The project plan had been updated after a Civic Design Review hearing to include more green space and a more varied design along Columbus Boulevard. Read previous PlanPhilly coverage of the project here.
Oppose a bill requiring sworn written testimony from developers that they have met with Registered Community Organizations before a zoning hearing could take place. Planning Commission staff said that zoning applicants are already required to swear in at the zoning board, and that the requirement would be an unnecessary hurdle for the many property owners seeking small-time changes to their homes or businesses. The bill was introduced by Councilwoman Cindy Bass.
Oppose a bill allowing billboards on North Broad Street, between JFK Boulevard and Lehigh Avenue, on all buildings with 50 feet or more of street frontage. The bill is sponsored by Council President Darrell Clarke. It has not yet been scheduled for a Committee hearing.
Oppose a bill prohibiting vehicle sales, rental, repair, and maintenance uses from the CA-1 and CA-2 auto-oriented commercial zoning categories. The bill, introduced by Councilman Mark Squilla, has already been approved by a City Council committee.
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Andrew Dalzell as the president of SOSNA; he is the programs coordinator. PlanPhilly regrets the error.
Jared Brey writes about development, zoning policy, and city government for PlanPhilly.com. He wasn't interested in being a reporter until halfway through a master's program in journalism at Temple University that he intended to parlay into an academic career. His work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, City Paper, Business Journal, and Metropolis.