Put Up a Parking Lot?

With “green space” such a public commodity, is East Falls comfortable with PhillyU’s proposed 700-car parking garage in our already-endangered watershed? Community groups from here to Wissahickon assert the plan violates new EPA regulations, and rally for a more sustainable & forward-thinking redesign.

Here we are again with PhillyU’s plan. The good news is, they altered the original version significantly so that now The Nuts are off the table, and so is the construction around Ravenhill. Big happy dance!

The bad news: PhillyU still seems poised to go ahead with their plan to place a 700-car parking garage off Henry Avenue, smack-dab in the middle of our local watershed.

The entire stretch of land is remarkable, with towering trees, babbling creek, and an old stone spring house. Stepping down there, the temperature is cooler, the air carries a freshness. In this natural valley, you can barely hear the traffic humming up above, the sounds of birds and crickets all around.

To say this little slice of heaven isn’t worth protecting because, oops, someone owns it is ridiculous. Land owners can’t dump gasoline in their gardens or paint offensive words on their houses. You can’t flash your neighbors from your front yard. There are rules regulating light pollution, sound levels… heck there are some communities that restrict house paint colors. Anything that affects your neighbors, basically, you can expect there to be rules, right?

So why was PhillyU acting so surprised (and irritated) that people aren’t eating up their “It’s-Our-Land-We-Can-Do-as-We-Please” attitude at last Wednesday’s zoning meeting?

Granted, it’s not ideal that most of the East Fallsers opposing the plan live in the “90210” section — a few streets/private lanes like Timber & Apalogen that sneak off Schoolhouse into a Wissahickon wonderland of wooded lots and historic, architectural homes.  Not In My Back Yard, indeed. But “green space” affects all of us, not just the elite fortunate enough to live in it.

I’ve been hearing a new term lately in Neighborhood Conservation circles, instead of NIMBY’s it’s “NOOFY’s” — Not On Our Front Yards. That is, if we all have to live with it, then we should have a say. Community over property ownership in such situations. 

With so many far-reaching benefits to health, climate, well-being — green space is a limited resource, seems insane to concrete over acres it, especially when the University already has a parking garage on campus that they could easily expand. When asked at last Thursday’s zoning meeting if they’d even considered other places for their new garage, representatives reluctantly admitted no, they hadn’t.

Is this the best we can do? Is it too much to ask PhillyU to live up to its own standards in innovation and sustainability?

Kris Soffa & Patty Cheek reported stakeholders were “relieved” to learn that a recent formal evaluation of Wissahickon Valley Park topography by hydrology expert Dr. Timothy Bechtel, PhD of Enviroscan, Inc declares the parking garage is in violation of the Wissahickon Watershed Ordinance, which if true would effectively halt the project as-is. That ordinance states in paragraph five:

“There shall be no new impervious ground cover constructed or erected within 200 ft. of the bank of a surface water body or within 50 ft. of the center line of a swale within the WWO overlay.”

Yet our favorite frustrated Canadian fur trader Jon Berger tells us the fight ain’t over yet. According to his understanding: Friends of the Wissahickon asked for more studies, which PhillyU won’t consider unless their plan is guaranteed approval. Sounds like a standoff to us.

For more information (albeit merrily one-sided), here’s Jon’s recap from last week:

Reflections on the 9/9/2015 East Falls Community Council Zoning Committee Meeting to Evaluate the latest Philadelphia University Draft Land Use Plan


Dear Friends and Concerned Neighbors,

What follows are reflections and observations gleaned from participating in the planning process since the end of January 2015. I have also attached a list of specific concerns and suggested voiced at various meetings and in emails.

After two proposed plans it has become painfully obvious that the process is reactive and not consultative or cooperative.

Neither the University nor the community is satisfied with the process. Indeed the University’s own lawyer pointed out that it was difficult to take down a page of comments, go away and prepare a response to every item, and then come back months later to another meeting  and another round of polite but hostile comments.

There are several poignant reasons why the process is reactive and not consultative.

(1)    The U’s planners work in a vacuum without interim community input. Thus the plans come out like jack-in- the boxes and everyone is surprised and can only react. To further elicit negative and reactive comments, the U’s planning team takes the position that the University can site any land use in any place without regard to existing planning and environmental regulations; aesthetic or historical concerns; or essential landscape processes like groundwater recharge, temperature flux and carbon budget, nutrient uptake, biodiversity, and other critical natural functions. From the University’s point of view, a pitiful few of these issues would then be addressed after a decision has been made to site a land use rather than before as best practice dictates.

(2)     While working in a vacuum is problematic enough, a greater concern may be that when asked for alternatives, the response is there are none other than more disruption and a greater spread of pavement and buildings.

(3)    The proposals continue to make the same errors over and over- that is valuable and cherished open space is proposed for high density University uses. The current plan still proposes a parking garage- now called a transportation center- in an ordinance prohibited area within the Wissahickon watershed as well as the siting of a large parking lot and loop road along Cherry Lane, which community members believe is a unique and scarce landscape in Philadelphia.  Similar boundary issues confound residents of Powers, Dobson, and Calumet streets.

(4)    Community members react negatively when presented with siting proposals that are not accompanied by any discussion of the environmental, public health, or socio economic impact of the proposals or by the bland statement that impacts are minimized. Cleary there are land and building value concerns; climate comfort issues; air pollution/ public health issues; loss of the beneficial services of wildlife (pollination, pest control, scavenging, etc.); traffic; noise; water quality; and other issues associated with more buildings, more cars, and more clearing of trees.

(5)    Among community members there is a growing consensus and predilection for a negative reaction because the plans are thought to be mere smoke screens for larger more ambitious proposals to come in the future.  The discussion between the University’s planners and the community about the future use of the University’s mapped and proposed improvement zones for high density use like parking lots clearly shows that there would be limited contiguous permanent open space contemplated by the University in any city council bill to authorize the special institutional zone sought by the University.

(6)    The current process aims to get something “by” the community and then thru the political process rather than working with experts in the community to find a sustainable solution to the University’s needs for more facilities. Indeed within a mile of the campus live folks with advanced degrees in architecture, landscape architecture, sustainable urban design, civil engineering, environmental planning, finance, public policy, public health, and environmental law. This body of expertise could be utilized to shape a sustainable approach to planning.

The sad part about the current process is that there is every indication that given up to date environmental planning, landscape architectural, and green urban design standards that all or most of the needs of the University can be accommodated in a sustainable manner.  The science and know how exists to meet the University’s needs over many years while at the same time  conserve contiguous open space forever, recharge water, lower environmental temperatures, decrease traffic congestion, and enhance the attractiveness of East Falls.  This is sustainable planning and design. A planning process that incorporates this ethos and expertise from the start will generate community support.

Respectfully submitted,

Jon Berger

Jonathan Berger Phd.
Director of Information Technology
1622 Locust Street

Philadelphia, PA 19103




  1. I’m glad “The Nuts” is off the table but it is totally irresponsible to put an impervious structure on such delicate land. I hike back there and the steep terrain already causes runoff. The construction vehicles alone will cause more runoff when the trees are cut down and then you add a big building and more paved surface for the cars, the runoff will only increase. Assuming PU gets as far as building the garage, what would all those additional cars going to do to the safety and air quality on Henry Ave.?

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