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Kensington's Development Tension Leads Latest Civic Design Review Agenda

Despite its well-publicized struggles with poverty, homelessness and drug addiction, Kensington remains a hotbed for new development due to its proximity to transit and to the popular commercial corridors of neighboring Fishtown.

Philadelphia's Civic Design Review board does not have any enforcement power, but its review is a required part of the development process in the city for any project over 100K SF or with at least 100 new residential units. As such, its monthly meetings provide a valuable window into major development plans across the city — and projects in Kensington feature regularly. 

At the April 20 meeting, which will be held virtually like all CDR hearings since the coronavirus pandemic's outbreak last March, three projects spanning Kensington will be discussed, one in East Kensington, one in a central portion of the city and another in South Kensington on the other side of the elevated train tracks. They will be joined by a Northeast Philadelphia distribution center proposal and multifamily projects in Germantown and University City.

2200-50 East Somerset St.

A rendering of a multifamily development on Somerset Street in Kensington from Riverwards Group

At the site of a junkyard that caught fire in a notorious 2018 incident, prolific local developer Riverwards Group has proposed a 530K SF development including 535 residential units and 179 car parking spaces. The parcel overlooks a cargo train line that held a homeless encampment so notorious for its drug use that television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz referred to it as "hell" when he visited in 2017

Six or so blocks away from the site is the Somerset station of SEPTA's Market-Frankford Line, which was closed in March over what the transit service called safety and mechanical issues with the elevator caused by an overload of urine and needles. Only vigorous protesting by local residents caused the station to reopen in early April.

Riverwards Group has been building residential properties in various parts of Kensington for several years now, both for-sale homes and rental units. As more of the vast swathes of blight in the huge neighborhood have filled in, its proposals have grown in scope.

1825 East Boston St. 

A rendering of 1825 East Boston St., a multifamily overbuild at the former site of Comly Auctioneers in Kensington

Closer to Fishtown and steps away from the York-Dauphin MFL stop, a developer identified as Glen Mills Associates has submitted a proposal for a 134K SF, 139-unit multifamily project including 13K SF of light industrial usage for artisans. The project is titled Comly Commons, after the auctioneer that occupied the existing building on the lot.

Comly Commons will include a redevelopment of the original brick building with a two-story overbuild to go along with new construction and a courtyard rounding out the rest of the lot. Metal siding will cover both the six-story new construction portion and the overbuild, consistent with new construction at several of the nearby lots that had sat vacant until the last couple of years.

Because of Kensington's industrial history, the parcel is already zoned Industrial-Residential Mixed-Use.

9801 Blue Grass Road

A rendering of Bridge Development Partners' 283K SF build-to-suit distribution center for TJX Cos.

Bridge Development Partners submitted its proposal for the industrial project it is building in Northeast Philadelphia on land owned by DH Property Partners. The proposal indicated a total of 752K SF for warehousing and distribution, but the only building detailed was a 283K SF distribution center replacing a former baked goods factory.

The new warehouse was announced in November as a build-to-suit for TJX Cos., parent company of T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods. If another building is planned for the nearly 500K SF discrepancy, it will trigger another CDR hearing.

Until the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery redevelopment moves further along, Northeast Philadelphia has been virtually the only place within city limits for new industrial development of any size since the e-commerce revolution took the logistics industry to a new echelon in commercial real estate.

119 South 31st St.

A rendering of multifamily project The Standard at Philadelphia proposed for a pocket of southeastern University City

A developer that has yet to disclose its name submitted a proposal for a 280-unit apartment building totaling 272K SF on a lot in the shadow of the CSX industrial train line that crosses University City. The 19-story proposal would loom over a United States Postal Service station that also contains a sorting facility on one side and a University of Pennsylvania lab building on the other.

The proposal also calls for 3,163 SF of retail space on the rear of the building, which sits on the block of 30th Street that has both upper and lower levels. The retail portion will sit on Upper 30th, opposite the entrance to Brandywine Realty Trust's FMC Tower, called AKA University City.

A block to the north lies Schuylkill Yards, Brandywine's mega-development that is approaching the start of its first new construction.

6134R-46 Wayne Ave.

A rendering of Tulpehocken Place, a transit-oriented, multifamily development in Germantown from Mosaic Development Partners

Mosaic Development Partners may have the Philadelphia Navy Yard at the top of its to-do list, but its community-oriented multifamily business arm remains productive. Tulpehocken Place, named for the regional rail stop it neighbors in Germantown, has gone through several redesigns, with the latest containing 83 residential units and no retail space.

Of those units, 55 will be rental apartments in a six-story building, while the remaining 28 will be for-sale condos split among seven townhouse-style buildings, each with four floors and four units. The 79K SF project was the subject of intense neighborhood debate referenced in a letter included in the proposal.

The letter came from the West Central Germantown Neighbors zoning committee, which asked for the CDR proposal to be delayed from February. Germantown was lauded in 2018 for increasing property values without displacing longtime citizens, but gentrification remains a central concern for all Philly neighborhoods with sizable Black populations.

1640-48 North Hancock St.

A rendering of 1640-48 North Hancock St., a multifamily proposal in South Kensington

South Kensington, also known as Olde Kensington, shares more of a border with Fishtown than with Kensington proper, with its southern edge sitting across Girard Avenue from Northern Liberties. It has been every bit as active for new development as Kensington, and a 110-unit proposal from Ampere Capital Group adds to the busy pipeline in both neighborhoods.

Ampere, which is based in Fishtown but has offices in Oakland, California; Austin, Texas; and Bozeman, Montana; has proposed a six-story building totaling 106K SF and including 14K SF of commercial space on the ground floor. The site currently contains a stable for horses that drag tourist carriages through Old City.

Within just a few blocks of the Hancock Street parcel are several multifamily projects already underway that promise to deliver hundreds of units to an area that has not yet had the level of infrastructure improvements that accompanied development booms of similar size in Northern Liberties and Fishtown.