Just around the corner from the South Philly intersection where Pat’s and Geno’s compete for cheesesteak-curious tourists, hides one of the more unusual delights of the historically working-class neighborhood. Walk down a narrow, one-way street and there, behind a wrought-iron gate that is never closed, lies a huge and unkempt green space.
Inside this 13,300 square-foot refuge from the noise and neon of Passyunk Square, bushes flower, willowy grasses sway in the breeze, and enormous golden koi fish swim in a pond.
Tucked in the far southeastern corner are three rowhomes, owned by the family who took over the former pottery factory, 706-724 Latona, after an investor went bankrupt in the 1980s trying to develop it.
For the next 30 years, the lot proved a testament to the area’s relatively weak real estate market. And where the highest and best use can’t be profitably produced, weirdness flourishes. That’s how a wild expanse of greenery with a koi pond comes to exist in the midst of a dense, old, rowhouse neighborhood where a tree is as rare as an empty parking space.
But in today’s South Philadelphia, the 1980s feel as dated as the 1880s. For developer Maxwell Bassman, the de-facto public green is an opportunity to build more homes in a suddenly very desirable — and profitable— neighborhood. Last week, the developer won approval from the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment for variances needed to move forward with a plan for 10 four-story townhomes with garages and an internal driveway.
Bassman’s company Maxim Capital Partners and the landowner, listed as Hoang Tran, have an agreement that the developer will purchase the land, assuming the approval for the zoning variances isn't overturned. Tran appears on the variance request, but Bassman and his representatives have been the only ones pitching the project to Passyunk Square and the Zoning Board. The property owner did not return phone calls from a reporter.
Bassman’s latest plans show 10 luxury townhomes facing each other, with a central drive aisle allowing homeowners to avoid South Philadelphia’s heated street parking battles. The communal driveway is topped by interlocking decks. The development fills nearly the entire lot.
Neighbors who came to last week's ZBA hearing said they hate the idea of four-story townhomes invading the low-rise community. Their asking price of close to a million dollars has offended the sensibility of some, while others worry about the impact on quality of life.
“This is the most I’ve ever seen anyone in South Philly agree on anything,” said Julia Tackett, a committeeperson and near neighbor of the proposal.
Over the course of four meetings with the Passyunk Square Civic Association, Bassman modulated his plan in the face of stiff opposition. The developer altered building heights and reduced the number of residential units and parking spaces in the face of stiff neighborhood opposition. He needs variances to build more than nine units and to tweak a few other requirements for the site’s single-family zoning. At each Passyunk Square meeting, neighbors voted against the new homes.
At a hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment last Tuesday, Bassman arrayed a battery of experts to testify in favor of his plan. His architect spoke about how the depth of the site didn’t allow for homes facing the street, a real estate agent spoke of the suitability of the market, and an urban planner from Econsult Solutions praised its likely effect on the neighborhood’s commercial establishments.
“I'm absolutely thrilled that someone is putting this amount of expense and quality into the neighborhood,” said Rachel Shapiro, the one neighbor to testify in favor of the project. “It will bring in a different quality of people. People who will abide by the street signs and won’t break bottles on the sidewalk.”
The expert firepower Bassman brought to the ZBA, marshaled by well-regarded zoning attorney Michael Mattioni, provided a counterweight to neighborhood opposition.
Older versions of Bassman’s plan proposed even taller buildings, with 12 units, and fewer parking spaces. But despite reducing the unit count, lowering the height, and increasing the number parking spots, opponents took time off of work to show up and speak against the project at two separate Zoning Board hearings.
“There’s no reason why the zoning code can’t be complied with, there’s no hardship being shown,” said Tackett, who lead the charge against the project at the ZBA. “A majority of houses on this block are two stories…These are massive buildings that would tower above their neighbors.”
But in addition to anxiety about the density, neighbors fear that the project and others like it in the area are changing the diverse rowhouse neighborhood in a less tangible way.
“My objection is that by having the idea that by having more expensive houses in this area it will bring better people to this area,” said near neighbor Ari Rosenthal, prompting Mattioni to retort that such an objection has little relevance on a variance request. “At this price point…it just isn’t in the spirit of South Philadelphia.”
City records show that the spacious lot last sold in 1998 for $58,000. In 2016, an OCFRealty post showed it on sale for $2.2 million.
The head of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, Frank DiCicco, used to represent the neighborhood in City Council. “It's that little Japanese garden,” he exclaimed when the case brought up. He still lives in the area and before voting to give the developer his variances, he noted that the feel of South Philadelphia has changed. After all, aren’t the new homes on the Mt. Sinai hospital site going on sale starting at $575,000?
“It’s just a different world,” said DiCicco. “Now people living down here have only one car, they move here for the convenience.”
In an interview two days after the zoning board hearing, Tackett said that the neighbors haven’t given up. There are still 28 days left to appeal the ruling, and they are planning on fighting in court to keep this corner of South Philadelphia weird or, at least, not so expensive.