Regardez Philippe

Fallsers freak over Frenchie at Franklin’s — let’s take a long look before the ZBA vote. 

People just love to hate developers these days but as progressive-minded neighbors who actually like density in our urban environment, we often find ourselves coming to their defense. At the recent EFCC shit show at Franklin’s, our sympathies largely leaned towards the property owner’s rather thoughtful and practical plan versus near neighbors who were shouting, insulting, name-calling… basically losing their minds over seven tidy townhomes scaled for an empty lot at Conrad & Bowman, but whatever.

Whether you like this development plan or not, you gotta give the owner Philippe Cini some credit for not just doing the required community presentation with his lawyer and architect, but coming down with his wife for a second meeting to face unfiltered comments from outraged Fallsers in a bar. “The neighbors have a right to express themselves,” he told us when we caught up with him after the meeting, “I am glad I could hear everything. It’s not good to keep it in.”

To us, that’s an encouraging sign. He owns the property, he could put up two big houses and fill them with college students if he wanted – figure something out “by right,” with no community input needed. He could’ve slapped up a design with convenient front-loading garages, so the streets would lose parking. Just like farther up Conrad at Indian Queen Lane, where those townhomes backed up to the railroad tracks inexplicably don’t have garages in the back.

Ever notice that? Weird how the developer chose to orient the driveways so that the neighbors lose out on street parking. It almost looks spiteful, doesn’t it?

TRUE STORY: It kinda is! The developer presented a plan that used the back property but required two homes to face Indian Queen Lane. The near neighbors loudly objected. So instead of working with the community to create a smart design for his project, he built what he could by-right for that land without any concern for street parking. The little strip of land leftover, he subdivided and sold to another developer, who was able to squeeze another townhome there by right.

See how that works? The developers tend to win in the end. Cause they own the land.

And zoning brings money to the City thru the Zoning Board of Adjustment, who makes the rules and has all the say about who gets zoned for what, anyway. All that Registered Community Organizations like EFCC & EFF can do is offer the ZBA one of three possible recommendations: they can support, object or remain undeclared. Before a variance is granted, the ZBA holds a public hearing downtown where near neighbors may also add their comments to the record.

The ZBA meetings we’ve seen have been short and business-like. At the hearing for Redeemer Church’s variance, near neighbors filled the courtroom to object – they wanted more parking and were sure the planned apartments would attract noisy college kids. The first speaker barely got out her points before the judge shut her down, something like:

You need more parking? Oh well these are our rules for the whole City so what makes you so special you need more than your fair share?

Afraid of bad renters? Call 311 with your actual complaints, this is zoning, we deal in physical land use not theoretical possibilities. NEXT!

He literally made everyone who was worried about parking raise their hands, then told them, “No.” Then asked if anyone was there to speak about renters, and again he said “No.” Then he asked if anyone had anything else to say but no one did so the ZBA approved the Variances. And now we have perfectly nice renters in what had been an unkempt vacant property at Conrad, Midvale and Penn.

And that nice green lawn you see around the building – the pretty old trees on the side?

Those near neighbors objecting at the ZBA meeting wanted that area paved over for parking. But the community overall wanted green space (and storm drainage), so the developer, Gary Jonas, redesigned his plan despite all the blowback. Even though he could make more money renting the extra parking space. To this day, I see the landscaping there and feel a little thrill it’s not all macadam.

A key metric in sizing up developers has got to be willingness to listen to and work with the community. Gary has so far been a pretty decent model in this respect, with his thoughtful renovation of St. Bridget’s former school on Stanton in addition to Redeemer. He’s working with the EFDC to renovate and maintain a City-owned parking lot for use by the public (including some space for visitors to his residential complex), the Overlook between Ridge & Kelly Drive.

On the other end of the spectrum…..

Remember the so-called “Green Giant” of Indian Queen Lane? The developer, Glenn Falso of Main Street Development, tried to get tricky with the zoning. He bought the vacant parcel, zoned for mixed-use commercial occupancy — a whole different set of specs than residential zoning for site coverage, height restrictions, parking, etc. Then, mid-way thru construction, he decided he’d rather rent the first floor out as another apartment rather than a business as the property’s zoning stipulates.

When he applied for a variance, there was more than the usual “reactive near neighbor” pushback. Aside from grumblings about blocked traffic and general messiness, some long-term neighbors with real estate/landlord experience raised some very practical questions about the plan’s extremely tight footprint – where would trash go? The heating/cooling units? The electrical meters?  Who had access to the open space in back?

Other neighbors pointed out the community had very recently and quite specifically discussed zoning for East Falls’ riverfront district. And people overwhelmingly voted to support a commercial corridor here. Because people are coming!

East Falls Development Corporation has been working with the City on a plan for a walkable community tied to the river and the Wissahickon. Centralized shops and services are a key part of this. Carolyn Sutton, a 35 year resident actively involved in efforts to revitalize East Falls’ business corridors, spoke against Falso’s variance request at February’s zoning meeting:

But Glenn Falso wasn’t just unmoved by the idea of a plan for East Falls — he was downright condescending about it. When he ran into Carolyn at Le Bus a few weeks before the ZBA hearing, he couldn’t have been smugger. He said something like, “You can protest if you want but, trust me, it’s gonna happen.”

When she told us this soon after, of course we assumed she was exaggerating. We also assumed he was probably right (70% of variance requests are approved, regardless of community input). EFCC and EFF both sent letters of opposition plus Carolyn submitted her own letter, and went to the ZBA hearing  to speak to the importance of East Falls’ business district. Annnnnd…..

Surprise! The ZBA agreed with the community. Falso’s variance request was denied, and his luxury rental dreams were crushed so bad he flipped out at Carolyn after the meeting, in front of his own attorney and EFCC’s zoning chair. She told us:

Upon exiting the hearing, in front of his Lawyer, Ronald Patterson of Klehr Harrison and the Chair of East Falls Community Council’s Zoning Committee, Todd Baylson, Mr. Falso pronounced me a “Bully” and threatened payback for my opposing his Variance request. He smirked while informing me that he’d be back in a year and, though “I had won the battle I would lose the war”. He continued, announcing to all within earshot that he would “buy up everything in East Falls and build what he wanted”, that he would rent his commercial space to the “most egregious, noisy, obnoxious tenant he could find.”

Now, everyone can have a bad day – no one’s calling for a witch hunt — but, still, let’s take note: that display demonstrates the opposite kind of developer we want for East Falls, right? That’s the kind of developer who builds front-loading garages where street parking is premium. Who builds rooftop decks instead of porches. Who brings in crappy materials rather than repurpose our old architecture.

Back on Conrad Street, Philippe’s first project in East Falls was renovating the historic red brick building, once the offices for Hohenadel Brewery, at the corner of Sunnyside. It was in very bad shape, perhaps a candidate for demolition. Today, it houses 15 residential units with ground floor commercial space that includes Yoga Brain and the new vegetarian restaurant everyone’s in love with – who has been such a smash hit he’s expanding to Mt. Airy already.

The Artist Haus started out as one of Philippe’s commercial renters and then owner, Mackenzie Day and her husband bought the whole building across the street so that’s another success story. Not all businesses have stuck, though, but that’s par for the case on struggling Mainstreet-type business corridors.

We’ve talked to happy tenants and grumbly ones. Near neighbors who don’t really take mind much of their surroundings and others who seem hyper-vigilant to how Philippe has maintained his property. Philippe hasn’t really gotten involved in community meetings, clean-ups, causes, etc. but he’s not here all that much.

He’s got a wife and family in Montgomery County. He manages his tenants & contractors via text. The lot he wants to build on is not infrequently overgrown but we’ve seen worse around the Falls, for sure. Recent attempts to reach out to near neighbors turned into rumors that he had been knocking on doors and offering “free parking for life.” Other neighbors have told us he’d promised them nothing of the sort – and we’ve gotta believe that until someone can show us a shady IOU (or at least go on the record to say it happened to them).

Dude has a pretty thick French accent, maybe it’s a misunderstanding. But whatever. This is his property and he’s been here 10 years and as far as we know he’s never screamed at senior citizens in zoning hearings. He’s taken heat from the neighborhood really well, and continued to be open to their input. His design seems efficient and scaled well with the existing street scape.

What’s the end game here? Resist till he sells to Falso?

Conrad & Sunnyside from 1923 Sanborn Map

Once upon a time, Conrad Street bustled with kids and dogs, huckster wagons, moms out scrubbing their marble steps and hanging out wash in the yard…. Old guys playing checkers in the corner bars… This part of East Falls was like a little city, crowded with mill workers and their families.

Old heads on Facebook groups post vintage photos and wax poetic about how awesome it was when East Falls had shops on every corner. People would have a million kids in a tiny rowhome, they just made room somehow and it was a beautiful thing.

Why is it so hard these days to imagine making room again? What feels good about believing the worst about people who want to move to your neighborhood?

And perhaps more importantly: where do we think saying “No” to smart development is going to get us?

DON’T JUST SIT THERE – VOTE! East Falls Forward is the neighborhood’s only democratic zoning body. All residents and business owners with an East Falls address can vote via e-ballot when variances are requested. Sign up at EastFallsForward.org. to be part of the next vote, which will include 3501 Bowman Street.

EFF meets the 3rd Thursday of every month at Bulogics, 3721 Midvale Avenue (map). Next meeting is May 16, 6:30 – 8:30. EFF is a Registered Community Organization in the city of Philadelphia.

TAKE IT DOWNTOWN! The ZBA Hearing for 3501 Bowman’s variance request is open to the public, although only near neighbors and RCO representatives may address the Board (you can submit letters/photos/evidence, too). Steve Fillmore will be representing EFF and The Local will provide real-time updates.
May 22nd, 9:30 am,
1515 Arch Street, 18th floor
Appeal #36607

Meetings start with a free community happy hour!

Thank you for reading — and please share! We work hard to cover community news and whenever someone shares one of our stories, it’s like a little hug of encouragement that helps to keep us going.

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