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Breaking the zoning code: how a “gargantuan” 7-story apartment building neighbors deplore could be built in Olde Richmond

Why would the city’s zoning code allow for a 7-story building to be built in a neighborhood full of mostly 2-story homes? The answer lies within a 2017 zoning remap of Olde Richmond, which was one small part of a much greater effort, called Philadelphia 2035, to remap the entire city by the year 2035.

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A rendering of the proposed project at 2400 E Huntington taken from the development team’s CDR presentation.

When Olde Richmond neighbors first saw renderings of Greenpointe Contruction’s development plans for the former hosiery mill at 2400 E. Huntingdon St., their reaction, to say the least, was negative.

“The height of this building will effectively eliminate all of our direct sunlight,” said resident Hanna Sherrill at a zoning meeting held on Zoom by the Olde Richmond Civic Association in October. “It would make it so that basically, unless you’re right up against the window, you won’t be able to see the sky from our house … this is just heartbreaking.

The October zoning meeting, as well as a follow-up meeting last week held by ORCA, was necessary due to the massive size of the proposal, which is 7-stories tall and has 150 dwelling units. When a certain size threshold is surpassed in a development proposal, the project must go before the community, and eventually the city’s Civic Design Review board, which critiques the project’s architectural competency, including how well the project fits into its surrounding neighborhood. 

Renderings of the proposed project show the building dwarfing the surrounding 2-story rowhouses of Olde Richmond, rising above them like a prison watchtower.

A rendering of the proposed project at 2400 E Huntington taken from the development team’s CDR presentation.

“We are losing everything if this building goes up,” said resident Patricia Nelson at the meeting. “We’re losing the sun, we’re losing the parking spots, we don’t know who they’re going to put in there because there’s 150 units.”

The saddest part of the project to residents, however, is that the proposal is by-right. This means that the proposal meets the zoning code’s stipulations for its parcel, and as a result, developers don’t need permission from the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment for the project to be constructed. In cases like these, there is little residents can do to prevent a planned development from being built. Which begs the question: Why would the zoning code allow for a 7-story building to be constructed in a neighborhood full of mostly 2-story homes? The answer lies within a 2017 zoning remap of Olde Richmond, which was one small part of a greater effort, called Philadelphia 2035, to remap the entire city by the year 2035.

Prior to this remap, which passed City Council via an ordinance introduced by Councilmember Mark Squilla, the lot at 2400 E. Huntingdon was zoned ICMX, or industrial commercial mix. The remap changed the zoning of this lot to IRMX, or industrial residential mix, paving the way for a project like Greenpointe’s to be constructed by-right. Had the zoning for this lot been left alone, building the project would have been significantly more difficult for Greenpointe; the development company would have needed to acquire a variance from the zoning board, which bases those sorts of decisions, in large part, on community input. As a result, the community would have had more tools to prevent the project from being constructed in the event it was proposed. It’s possible that it wouldn’t have been proposed in the first place. 

Paul Chrystie, spokesperson for the city’s department of planning and development, told the Star that the remapping “took place as a result of significant public input,” which included “three public meetings.”

Documents and photos on the Philadelphia 2035 website show summaries from at least two of those public meetings – one held in January 2014, at the LOOM Philly, a warehouse space and collection of artist studios in Port Richmond, and another at Hackett School in Kensington held in March 2015. However, these meetings weren’t Olde Richmond-specific. On display at these meetings was the Planning Commission’s vision for the entire River Wards rezoning effort.

“Obviously not everyone agrees with every rezoning,” Chrystie added, “but it is safe to say that this rezoning included public input throughout the process and had the support of the relevant civic association and Councilmember.”

But there’s more to the story. According to Chris Sawyer, who was the chair of ORCA’s zoning committee at the time it supported the ordinance, he and former ORCA president Don Gould (Gould declined to comment for this article) met privately with City Planning Commission employee David Fecteau to discuss the Planning Commission’s proposed changes to Olde Richmond’s zoning, which included changing 2400 E. Huntingdon from ICMX to IRMX. Sawyer told the Star he sent back a list of modifications to the Planning Commission’s proposed changes, but the 2400 E. Huntingdon change wasn’t among them. Sawyer saw the property’s change to IRMX as a way to make it easier for a developer to convert the former industrial site into apartments (a process known to development experts as “adaptive reuse”) – the same process used by other developments in the neighborhood such as The Ribbon Factory, located at Trenton and Sergeant streets, and Huntingdon Mills, located at Trenton and Huntingdon streets.

While it’s true that the zoning change made it easier for a developer to commit to adaptive reuse, it also made it easier for a developer to do exactly what Greenpointe did, which was propose the residents’ worst nightmare. Sawyer simply didn’t see it coming.

“We didn’t have any idea that a developer would implode the entire thing, build something new and shoot a middle finger to residents and say, ‘You’re [screwed] on parking forever,’ ” Sawyer said. “That wasn’t on anybody’s mind when we sat down to talk to the Planning Commission.”

At the time, Sawyer said, it was “rare” for ORCA to get any large development projects.

“Only in the last year or so we’ve been getting requests for these mega projects,” he said. 

A screenshot form a reply to ORCA’s March 2017 Facebook post announcing the change to the zoning map, which states that there was no meeting public meeting for the zoning map. Rather, “The board discussed this on its own.”

What’s unclear is the extent to which ORCA involved its own constituents in the rezoning process, prompting outrage from residents. In 2017, when a resident asked in a Facebook comment when the civic’s community meeting regarding the rezoning took place, ORCA’s account responded, saying that “The board discussed this on its own.”

Sawyer said the response was inaccurate. The rezoning plans had in fact been brought in front of residents at two general meetings, he said.

“We told them that if you had any input on it to come seek us out,” he said. “As far as I could recall there wasn’t any objection about that particular property.”

Either way, even by Sawyer’s own account, ORCA did not hold a special meeting for residents to discuss the endeavor to remap the entire neighborhood with the ORCA board or zoning committee.

Current members of ORCA’s board say they don’t have a recollection of any in-person talks at all with the neighborhood at the time. 

“I vaguely remember seeing these posts [on Facebook about the rezoning] and thinking there’d be meetings coming up about it and there was not,” said current ORCA board member Matt Ludwig in an interview with the Star. Ludwig said he didn’t join the ORCA board until about a year after the rezoning.

ORCA’s current president, Rose Thomas, said she doesn’t remember the subject being brought up even at a general meeting, though she was careful to note that it may have happened and she simply didn’t remember.

“I can’t find anything that tells clearly what happened besides the memory of folks who were involved,” she said, but also admitting that “there could have been a more robust process and it’s upsetting and disappointing that this project is a result of maybe some missteps on [ORCA’s] part.”

At the October meeting, Ludwig said that had he been involved at the time, he would have done things “a lot differently.”

“We would have had a much more robust conversation about how the rezoning should’ve occurred,” he said. “We would have had in-person community meetings.”

Sawyer, who said he takes “full responsibility” for not knowing that a developer would build something like Greenpointe’s proposal, told the Star that the only chance the community had of preventing the project from being built was by suing the city in Municipal Court over the issuance of building permits for the project. He said he’d commit $1,000 to hiring a lawyer if enough residents wanted to pursue the lawsuit.

A rendering of the proposed project at 2400 E Huntington taken from the development team’s CDR presentation.

“I just want these people to go down the right path to getting what they want,” he said. “I want to see them go to court.”

Thomas said that ORCA was not considering filing a lawsuit.

“The money and time that would cost us, I think, is prohibitive to a volunteer board with no income,” she said. “I also think it’s a little bit ridiculous that an RCO’s only recourse is to sue.”

In a phone call with the Star, Squilla proposed the idea of better communication between the Planning Commission and residents.

“Maybe Planning meeting should have residents better understand what the possibilities of development are when you change zoning material,” he said.

Squilla also said he took issue with the development team’s use of the fresh food bonus, which allows the project to extend 15 feet higher – about two stories – in exchange for the inclusion of a fresh food market on the ground floor of the structure. The fresh food bonus was designed to combat food deserts in the city; developers would be encouraged to include food markets in proposals located in neighborhoods where fresh food markets weren’t nearby. However, by virtually anybody’s definition, Olde Richmond is not a food desert and is not in need of more access to fresh food. Fresh food is sold nearby at locations like the IGA Supermarket, Memphis Market and the Kensington Community Food Co-op. 

“Planning said if we came up with a bonus for areas without food distribution locations maybe that would encourage more [developers] to put a grocery store into areas that are food deserts,” said Squilla. “But to have it citywide doesn’t make sense. Seeing how developers take advantage of the situation and allow for an overbuild in some areas was not the intent of what Planning had in mind to add grocery stores to food deserts.”

According to Chrystie, the developer is also using a bonus worth 19,000 square feet – roughly equivalent to 1 floor of the building height – in return for a $775,000 contribution to the city’s Housing Trust Fund.

Last week, the project was presented in front of the CDR board. If residents were averse to the development, the CDR board was downright hostile.

“It just looks ridiculous,” said CDR board member Ashley DiCaro. “It is so tall for this site … I feel like the developer should almost be ashamed, and I do feel for the residents that live nearby.”

Board member Nancy Rogo Trainer called the project “gargantuan” and advised the development team to “start over.” She noted how the development team failed to make the proposal fit the traditional, red brick-clad industrial vibe of the neighborhood. 

“This building literally could be anywhere,” she said. “I would hope that a developer hoping to build in this neighborhood would come, look at its assets, would think about its industrial past as part of those assets and build on it in a way that really enhances the community.”

Board member Dan Garofalo was even more blunt.

“Nobody comes to a public forum like this and says, ‘I want to be the guy who gets excrement poured on my head for 45 minutes,’’ he said, “but that’s what the development [team] designing this set themselves up for today.”

The next step in the development process is for the development team to go back in front of the CDR board for the final time next month. Residents’ best plan is to simply hope Greenpointe decides to alter the proposal drastically to make the project more amenable to the neighborhood. But many, like Sawyer, aren’t holding their breath.

“In this particular case,” he said, “we’re powerless.”

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