Six story residential/commercial project on York Street a no-go for Fishtown residents

Architect Herb Schultz (left) and zoning attorney Michael Phillips (right) present David Landskroner’s development plans for 2504-08 E. York St. at Tuesday night’s FNA zoning meeting. | Photo by Tom Beck

By a margin of 27-70, Fishtown residents voted against a planned development at 2504-08 E. York St., which includes a six-story apartment building complete with 24 dwelling units, a pilot house and 2,600 square feet of commercial retail on the ground floor, at last week’s FNA zoning meeting. The project’s zoning attorney, Michael Phillips, called the project, which is being developed by David Landskroner of Hightop Real Estate, the beginning of a “revitalization and growth of the York Street Commercial Corridor.”

The project, which is planned for a parcel currently zoned RSA-5, was refused by the ZBA on four grounds: open area (under RSA-5, the corner lots like this one must have 20 percent minimum open area; the proposal has only 14 percent), minimum rear yard depth (RSA-5 stipulates a minimum of 9 feet of rear yard depth whereas the proposal has only 5 feet), use (RSA-5 is zoned for single families, whereas this development’s plans are for only single and two-bedroom apartments) and height (under RSA-5, the structure cannot exceed 38 feet; this one is 69 feet, including the pilot house). The height and the use variances were the main points of discussion throughout the meeting. With regard to use, Phillips said that building single family homes on the lot, which is what it’s currently zoned for, would be “unviable.” For that reason, the development team constructed the project to fit a CMX 2.5 zoning standard. For context, the nearest lots zoned CMX 2.5 are blocks away along Front Street. No property along the York Street corridor is currently zoned as such.

According to Phillips, the structure is 59 feet tall without the pilot house. He said the pilot house isn’t typically included in the building’s height, but was in this case because it exceeds a 165-square-foot limit set by the zoning board. For this reason, Phillips, who said the pilot house was actually 600 square feet, requested that community members think of the building as being 59 feet tall instead of 69 feet.

“Normally, you are allowed a 10-foot pilot house, but here it all got generated towards the building height,” he said. “So, in reality, we have a 59-foot building.”

Many residents, including the FNA’s zoning committee, saw the project as too tall for the corridor. The FNA’s zoning chair, Ian Wilson, called the project an “overbuild” and said it would “create a precedent on York Street, absolutely.” Phillips acknowledged the project was taller than virtually any other nearby building. The next-closest building, the development team’s architect, Herb Schultz, said was 2424 Studios half a block away. Schultz estimated that building to be between 46 and 50 feet tall, about 10 feet less than the project (or 20 feet if you include the pilot house).

“This admittedly is different from York Street, but we see this as the revitalization and the growth of the York Street Commercial Corridor, which is why we’re seeking the additional height and retail space to kickstart that future,” said Phillips. 

Many residents didn’t quite see it that way.

“Whose vision are you talking about?” asked one resident at the meeting. “Because you’re clearly not talking about the vision of the majority of the people of this room. Who’s vision of what’s going on on York Street are you referring to?”

Residents were also skeptical of adding commercial space on the ground floor given the number of empty storefronts on Frankford Avenue. 

“Look at all the vacant new commercial space on Girard and Frankford,” said another resident. “We’re surrounded by it. Vacancies are just no good. It’s just more blight…Your client’s vision for York Street is one thing, and it is greed.”

Phillips’s argument was that many of those vacancies exist because the spaces are simply too small.

“That is why we have 2,600 square feet of retail proposed,” he said. “A lot of the vacancies that you see – it’s because of the smaller footprint of the commercial ground floor retail, which makes it much harder to attract high-quality tenants. We have a larger retail footprint with 11-, 12-foot ceilings. We’re able to attract the bigger, more stable tenants into this space.”

Currently, the development team is scheduled to present the project in front of the ZBA on Jan. 29 at 2 p.m. However, whether or not the team actually presents or files a continuance is up in the air.

“Based on the feedback tonight, it is likely that we will be seeking a continuance on the 29th,” Phillips said.

Despite the criticism, Phillips was adamant that he wanted to win over the community. 

“We want your feedback and we want to take that feedback and most likely continue a dialogue,” he said. “[Saying] that we’re not going to listen to anything that the community says – that’s not the way my client works. And it’s not the way we’ve addressed other projects that have been handled in the community.” It has yet to be determined if and when there will be a second community meeting.