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'Are You Kidding Me?' City Council Passes Bill Downzoning Girard Avenue Commercial Corridor

The unfettered control Philadelphia City Council members have over the zoning in their districts has allowed for a bill to be passed that befuddles developers and neighborhood advocates alike.

City Council President Darrell Clarke, speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony for The Hamilton.

On Thursday, the final council session before its summer recess, the city’s legislative body passed a bill that restricts new development on Girard Avenue between Second and Broad streets to about the height of a three-story rowhouse. Council President Darrell Clarke, whose district encompasses that corridor, introduced the bill, which passed unanimously. Girard Avenue sits slightly more than a mile north of Market Street and provides a busy thoroughfare for cars and public transit between its stops on the Broad Street and Market-Frankford subway lines.

The unanimous passing of zoning bills specific to one council district is a fact of life in Philadelphia city government, where the unwritten tradition of councilmanic prerogative means that a council member can count on unquestioned support from the rest of the body in land matters within their district. What makes this instance unique is that it is unclear where the idea came from.

“No one community group requested this, but in response to recent community concerns, the Council President is seeking to better control density along this corridor, to protect historic neighborhoods such as Yorktown and West Poplar, adjacent to Girard Avenue,” Clarke spokesperson Joe Grace said in a statement provided to Bisnow. Clarke’s office declined to comment further.

Not only did no single community group request the Girard Avenue overlay, at least one registered community organization whose area is affected wasn’t aware such a bill was being considered before it was passed: Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, whose northern border consists of the southern side of Girard Avenue between Second and Sixth streets. None of the other RCOs directly affected by the overlay responded to requests for comment.

“We weren’t even consulted,” NLNA Zoning Chair Larry Freedman told Bisnow. “That’s the main thing. We have a long-running, successful neighborhood association and zoning committee, and we do work with the [Philadelphia City Planning Commission] in mapping stuff out, and we respect each other. And this didn’t work that way.”

Freedman, who has been on the NLNA zoning committee for more than 30 years, said it had been more than 20 years since a zoning bill had been passed for the neighborhood without the organization’s knowledge. He said that if NLNA had been asked about the bill before its introduction, he would have opposed it. The two most recent projects on Girard Avenue to come before NLNA have both exceeded 50 feet, and NLNA’s concerns were with the parking offered in the projects rather than the scale.

“The majority of the neighbors and committee members were OK with going a little higher, because Girard Avenue is a big, wide street,” Freedman said.

A strip mall near the corner of 12th Street and Girard Avenue, where a trolley stop sits between two lanes of car traffic in each direction.

The bill has two main components. The first is an overlay restricting all new construction on Girard Avenue between Second and Broad streets to 38 feet and restricting the ability of developers to add extra height by including affordable housing units in their projects. The second component only applies to an extra block both north and south of Girard Avenue between Sixth and 13th streets, wherein all properties that had been zoned as CMX-2.5, for commercial mixed-use, or RM-2, for purely multifamily use, will be rezoned as CMX-2. That also restricts those properties to 38 feet, but the language of the bill seems to allow for properties just off Girard Avenue to still be eligible for mixed-income height bonuses.

The planning commission testified in opposition to the Girard Avenue-specific overlay, while supporting the rezoning component. A PCPC spokesperson declined to comment beyond the commission’s testimony.

Zoning overlays restricting height have grown increasingly common in the past couple of years, such as in historic neighborhoods like Society Hill and Strawberry Mansion. The difference with the stretch of Girard Avenue in question is that it contains few rowhomes, several strip malls, a trolley route and as many as six lanes of traffic. 

“The last thing I would want to do is build a house on Girard Avenue and live there,” Freedman said. “You don’t want to be on the ground level there; you want to have a little peace and quiet.”

Though Clarke justified the bill by citing the need to protect neighborhoods to the north, Girard Avenue is a place that urbanists like advocacy group 5th Square say is ideal for the sort of dense development that can help keep prices down for nearby homes. The presence of the trolley also encourages dense development that would increase population density where people wouldn’t necessarily need cars to get around, 5th Square wrote in a petition asking Mayor Jim Kenney to veto the bill.

“This is ABC urban planning anywhere,” Riverwards Group Managing Partner Mo Rushdy, who also serves as treasurer of the Building Industry Association’s Philadelphia chapter, told Bisnow. “Main streets, commercial corridors of any city or town are where you want density and height. Limiting to 38 feet on a commercial corridor like Girard? Are you kidding me? Why? Why?”

The Girard overlay is not just a weird outlier, but part of what Rushdy claims is a concerted effort to restrict development across the city. As part of the BIA, Rushdy has lobbied for the city to make more use of the policy implemented at the start of last year that would allow disposal of city-owned land through the Philadelphia Land Bank to developers who promise to build at least 50% affordable units on those sites. Under such agreements, developers would only have to pay a nominal fee for the land, eliminating one of the many costs that make affordable housing so difficult to build.

“The pandemic slowed things down, but how much land has been disposed of now that the policy has been in place for 18 months?” Rushdy said. “None.”

An early rendering of the Piazza Terminal project in Northern Liberties, Philadelphia

Clarke’s office named Yorktown and West Poplar in its statement as the neighborhoods he seeks to protect. Yorktown is a small planned community, one of the city’s first and on the National Register of Historic Places, that sits on the north side of Girard between 11th and 13th streets. It has high rates of homeownership among people of color, Clarke’s office said in its statement. West Poplar, on the opposite side of Girard from Yorktown, was redeveloped in the 1990s by the Philadelphia Housing Authority into a series of single-family homes, some standalone and some attached, PlanPhilly reports.

Farther east, over 1,000 multifamily units are already under construction between 2nd and 3rd streets within a block of Girard Avenue in Northern Liberties. Post Brothers, whose Piazza Terminal project will rise as high as 11 stories, declined to comment, while Streamline, whose development is of a slightly smaller size and adjacent to Girard, did not respond to requests for comment.

North of Girard Avenue between 2nd and 6th streets is the southern edge of the neighborhood known as South Kensington or Old Kensington, where several new multifamily developments are either under construction or in the planning phase. The neighborhood was formerly one of Philadelphia’s industrial centers, and combined with Kensington proper is one of the most active neighborhoods in the city for development. 

Kenney has yet to comment on the bill, but even if it passes, it won’t necessarily spell doom for density on Girard. Though overlays are tougher to overcome than base zoning, the Zoning Board of Adjustment still grants the vast majority of applications for variances. Though the entire city underwent a remapping of its zoning as recently as 2012, a combination of a permissive ZBA and members of city council unilaterally making changes in their districts, the city lacks a coherent system for planning development.

“I’m so used to nutty zoning things. It’s like, ‘Add that to the list, and we’ll figure it out,’” Freedman said. “That being said, 38 feet is kind of silly.”