Big fears concern neighbors about this new construction. But will any of it float with the ZBA? (Meeting recap with video)
MAY 2019 update: This zoning variance request was denied by the ZBA. Also, the developer kind of flipped out after the meeting, read our recap of another contentious neighborhood project and scroll about halfway down to the Indian Queen Lane apartment building.
February’s EFCC meeting was set to be a bit of a showdown, with many near neighbors ready to ask the developer some tough questions about his dubious proposal to squeeze three units into a lot smaller than what the city normally allows for this kind of residential. On top of that, zoning in this area requires first-floor commercial – which according to the site permits had been the plan when construction began but now for some reason the developer has changed his mind.
So the community was wondering what was going on with that. And neighbors had some complaints to voice, too: contractors that blocked traffic unannounced, for instance, or encroached into parking spaces or adjacent properties.
All that had to wait, though. At the last minute, the developer and his attorney postponed their presentation until maybe March or later, “for reasons that are pretty clear to a lot of people,” Todd Baylson added. Still, EFCC’s zoning chair gamely agreed to do his best to field questions from the roomful of neighbors who came out for answers – although he stressed that he was NOT speaking for the developer and in fact had never even met the developer (although they’ve been in contact).
So what else do we know about the construction going on at 3680 Indian Queen Lane? Some backstory: apparently, this lot had been part of the old Liquor Store property on Ridge (now Famous 4th Street Cookies) — which is why (some say) the zoning here demands commercial on the ground floor. This tends to support the developer’s argument that Indian Queen Lane is residential, so housing would be a more appropriate use for this lot.
The developer’s attorney also indicated to Todd that they haven’t had any interest from possible commercial tenants, even though they have (supposedly) been marketing it. And on top of that, they feel the unit would be too small for a viable business to operate here anyway. And it would burden the neighbors with parking hassles.
But another family? Get ‘em in here! So what if the lot’s not quite big enough. If we want walkable shops and services, then we need density. Right?
Not so fast…
For Felicite Moorman (near neighbor and chair of East Falls Forward, the neighborhood’s other RCO), commercial would be a welcome addition to this part of Indian Queen Lane, so close to the Riverfront Business District. “When we did the strategic overlay rezoning for certain sites, this site was included…. We specifically requested it be rezoned CMX 2.5,” she wrote on Facebook, “I’ll vote no variance.”
But what about parking in this teeny-tiny space? (Currently, CMX 2.5 has no parking requirements.)
Longtime EFDC board member Carolyn Sutton addressed the issue at Monday’s meeting, “To say that residential will cause less parking trouble than commercial is absolutely false,” she said, “because people who use the commercial spaces will come during the day while neighbors are away at work. It’s these multi-units with maybe six people – that could be six cars! – that will be a problem for overnight parking on that block.”
Furthermore, Carolyn called the developer’s behavior to task, “It’s incredibly inappropriate for them to come back after all this time and say, they don’t think it’ll work there. Then they shouldn’t have bought the property.”
Local builder George Grigonis (who is quite familiar with the site, as one of his properties is next door) offered some straight-shooting from his years of experience in construction and as a landlord. “I don’t think they should build anything here,” he deadpanned when Todd asked him if he felt there should be commercial or residential on the site. But seriously:
“Since this site is so challenging, it’s small and really built-out to all the edges, I think it would be really wise for the committee – when they do actually get a presentation — to question usage around the property for things like trash, air-conditioning units… Where’s all this stuff gonna go? In a 100% build out? It’s gonna be like right out front on the sidewalk.”
Same thing when tenants move in and out. “You know what’s gonna be there: a mattress, a sofa, half the contents of the apartment…. All the boxes and everything.”
“When you’re using a small site and you’re really challenged, you have to really think out the logistics ahead of time. Of how tenant occupancies will be using that site. You can’t just say ‘Okay, I’ve got this building at this square footage and I’ll just shove people in there and it’ll all self-manage… and I’ll just collect rent at the end of the month.’ That just doesn’t happen.”
George then walked the room thru some quick math: if you have three occupancies, you can expect two bins per unit, one for trash and one for recycling. The plans show like 12 feet of frontage, “So that’s like 10 feet for trash cans,” George laughed. “They’ll be practically in the doorway.”
And they’re building here already, remember. By right they can put a three-story building (topped with roof deck & pilot house) here with two residential units plus a commercial unit at street level. As long as they keep building that, they’re good to go.
The trash situation George described certainly sounds alarming – but that’s a sanitation issue, not a zoning one. The work site looks scary, but that’s L&I’s concern not ZBA’s. Same deal for noisy, shoddy or inconsiderate contractors. What’s a frustrated neighbor to do? Are we setting a precedent here for all the little green “postage stamp” lots in the Falls?
Todd acknowledged that the days of storming the ramparts against developers were over. Neighbors needed to understand the zoning laws and present a well-supported objection to the Board. “We have the find the right path as a group,” Todd said, echoing a terrific Facebook comment that called out neighbors seeking to use the variance to negotiate better terms for parking, construction, trash collection:
Unless a notary is at the meeting to sign off on an in-meeting-drafted agreement between the community group and the builder to enforce some behavior code onto the contractor, that we all miraculously agree upon, zoning meetings for projects of this size are generally not a negotiation… If you want to punish this contractor with fines and complaints to their employer and trouble with the Councilman, go for it….
But denying a variance for bad contractor behavior just suggests to the ZBA that the community group does not grasp that meetings role in the process, and makes it more likely to be approved by the ZBA anyway…. Keep in mind that an RCO’s fire gets a reputation. The ZBA overrules communities they know to use it overzealously or erroneously. If we want our RCO to have teeth, we need to tend to this reputation. (S. Suter)
Which brings us back to the two reasons the developer needs variances to build now:
- The area is zoned for first-floor commercial, not residential.
- The property fails to provide the minimum of 360 sqft of lot per dwelling required by Phila Zoning code for a three-family building (obviously only an issue if residential zoning is approved)
So the big question for this lot of land is: Does the neighborhood want an apartment on the first floor or a business? Which is best for the community?
The best thing about an all-residential model is that is practically guarantees the ground-floor space will be filled. Business is a gamble, no one wants vacant storefronts. But still.
This is a prime Riverfront Business District location – the building is next door to East Falls Eye Associates and across the street from Le Bus. Off the top of my head, here’s five things other than residential that could work here:
- LeBus retail outlet with grab-and-go menu items
- Uncle Bobbies outpost
- EF’s Historical Society office/Grace Kelly Museum
- LeBus bar and live music venue
- Vault + Vine café and retail
You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one: Philly recently rezoned this area to reflect what planners and neighbors, both, felt were the best uses for each area.
“I’m not speaking for the Development Corporation, but for the process that we went through… I’m speaking as someone who actually went to all those meetings over a period of two or three years. And listened to people’s opinions about it… We all determined that CMX2.5 was the appropriate designation for that lot,” Carolyn Sutton explained when Todd relayed he was unclear about whether EFDC supported residential or commercial here.
Felicite chimed in, “That was the strategic overlay that we all worked on as a zoning committee, we did that together as a community. You were there, Todd. I was there…” (True! Here’s a meeting recap from Feb 2016)
All we are saying, I guess, is give biz a chance. According to Carolyn’s recent count of storefronts in East Falls Riverfront Business district and Conrad Street (our secondary commercial corridor), of the 86 available spaces, 74 are occupied. “Business is coming now,” Carolyn told the room. We have these big residential properties going up, surely businesses can find ways to use small spaces when there is a demand. So perhaps we can dial down on the vacant storefront panic?
Hold your vote! The developer still needs to present to the community to move forward with any of the work they are requesting variances for. Todd assured the audience that everybody will get a chance to express their concerns publicly and have their questions answered fully with copies of the plans to look at and renderings and all that good stuff.
Hopefully. Because as longtime neighbor/local realtor Heather Petrone-Shook pointed out, the date for their ZBA hearing is still listed as March 6th on Atlas, Phila.gov’s awesome tool where you can punch in any city address and find public deeds, notices, violations, permits…even historic images. This property’s listing seems to indicate they’re set to go before the zoning board in three weeks.
Which can’t be right. Right? MAY 1 UPDATE: this project’s request for a variance was DENIED by Philadelphia’s zoning board. UPDATE: this project’s rescheduled zoning hearing is May 1 at 2pm). The developer will present to the community Wednesday, March 20th at Penn Charter (6:30 pm). Click here to view and download the plans.
2/18/19 UPDATE: Connect with the project manager on EF Rants Page, where Brandon Spewak reached out to address street closures and possible trash issues.
2/19/19 UPDATE: ENTER THE ZONING NERDS…
Big thanks to patient Facebook friends who helped Steve and me through a highly-caffeinated clash over what the hell was happening on IQL.
Carolyn Card Sutton The CMX2.5 zoning of 3680 IQL was part of the City’s massive rezoning initiative, which more or less did away with most neighborhood overlays. EF residents have been overwhelmingly in favor of preserving the Mainstreet quality of our commercial corridors, hence the City’s decision to use the new code’s CMX2.5 designation along most of Ridge and Midvale.
Gina Snyder I recollect that when I specifically called about this parcel, Planning dept staff said the zoning of CMX 2.5 was because of a piece of the property came from the old liquor store and the zoning carried with it. In my recollection, in the new overlay, we did not intend for IQL to be commercial. The zoning on that property was intended to be single-family residential. Not high density.
Carolyn Card Sutton If the parcel had been zoned RSA-5, Falso would have required a variance from the start. It was the CMX2.5 zoning that allowed for multi-use development by right.
Carolyn Fillmore Oh wow, so if the developer had wanted to put apartments here, he’d have had to ask the community before breaking ground. The commercial zoning gave him a way to get his foot in the door. So what should the community do?
Sharon Jaffe Cut off your nose to spite your face? He started as commercial cause he could start faster than multi family. Make him fulfill the original intent of the permit. It is part of the commercial corridor.
Sean Suter At this point, the commerical vs residential first floor is looking more and more like 6 of 1 and half dozen of the other. It just sucks that the (imo) best compromise, a 2 unit building that is all residential, is not on the table. The developer wants 3 units (res or mix), and by CMX rules can’t have residential on most of the 1st floor. I feel like a variance for a 2 unit building without commercial would’ve been the best use, ah well.
*FINAL TIDBITS FROM FEBRUARY’S ZONING RECAP*
Big news! David Grasso pulled permits for his proposed development at Ridge/Calumet/Kelly. This includes demolition permits for the ballroom structure, as well as construction permits for all the plans the community has been talking about for the last hundred million years. (“This doesn’t necessarily mean stuff gonna start happening but it’s a sign of progress,” said Todd.)
Penn Charter had previously been seeking SpIN zoning for their growing campus off School House Lane – now it seems they’re backing off from that. As Felicite mentioned last fall, it’s much faster and simpler for them to get the variances they need for each project piecemeal rather than shooting for special blanket legislation.
– Their upcoming project will be their Athletics & Alumnus Center, which is off The Oak Road and School House. It’ll be a big project that will require two public meetings, including a Civic Design Review downtown. Look for that this spring.
– Penn Charter has been working with 3 groups of near neighbors from Fox, Coulter and The Oak Road who seek assurances that the proposed development will not detract from the character of the streets. Football field lighting proves to be the main issue, neighbors are not thrilled about the idea of loud, bright evening games.
Still reading? Thank you! Zoning is not sexy or juicy or in any way a feel-good process. Hats off to you, concerned citizen. Not to be greedy but we’d love to know what you think about all this. Please email us or comment below. Or troll us on Nextdoor or the Rants page.
The developer will present to the community Wednesday, March 20th at Penn Charter (6:30 pm). Click here to view and download the plans.
**RECAP WITH EFF**
Thursday March 21 (6:30 – 8:30)
Review plans with neighbors. Ask questions, talk things out. Free community happy hour starts at 6:30pm. Relaxed & informal meeting begins at 7:30pm. Follow on Facebook for zoning updates, meeting recaps and links to vote on important issues.
3721 Midvale Ave (map) East Falls Forward is a Registered Community Organization in the city of Philadelphia