On Thursday, April 11, Council President Darrell Clarke introduced a bill rezoning a small portion of the vacant lot between 2nd, Master, Thompson, and American streets from I-2 to CMX-3 to bring it into line with the zoning necessary to build the project described below.
The fenced, vacant lot that was once Absco scrap yards would become home to 320 apartments, a commercial space and several green spaces under a Canus Corporation plan recently presented to residents at a South Kensington Community Partners meeting.
Called Soko Lofts, the project would be built in two phases. The current plan for Phase I consists of two, four-story buildings fronting on 2nd Street, with an entrance and access to the interior courtyard between them. One of the buildings has a lobby that also has an entrance from the street. Phase II is planned as a single, larger building fronting on American Street. Seth Shapiro, director of planning and urban design at BartonPartners, said the building height would step up from four to seven stories. The plan for the ground floor includes a larger lobby, commercial space and about 50 covered parking spaces.
The series of buildings would essentially ring most of the entire block made by American, Master, 2nd and Thompson streets, with the exception of a park space and pedestrian access mid-block on 2nd, vehicle access on Master and American, and a sizable public plaza at the corner of American and Thompson. Both the commercial space and some live/work units would face the plaza. Other live/work units will be located elsewhere on the property, Shapiro said, but exactly how many and where they would be located was not clear.
The courtyard space inside the ring of buildings consists of lawns, outdoor seating and other resident amenities – fire pits are the current thinking – and an additional 50 parking spaces. Parking would be leased – the cost would be separate from the rent.
The buildings will be energy efficient, but not LEED certified. “We are not planning on getting the plaque,” he said.
Canus Vice President Paul Rabinovitch said his company has “invested over $8 million in cleaning contamination from the property,” which was a Superfund site. Canus began working on this project in 2007, he said. But by the time the site was purchased and ready for construction, the economy tanked, so the project was put on hold until now. The target for starting construction is late fall, with the first phase taking about a year. Financing has not been finalized, but is in the works.
“Not every aspect is completely designed yet,” Rabinovitch said. “There is room for your input.”
Judging from comments made at the meeting, residents and community leaders are pleased that development is coming to the long-vacant site. But there are elements of the proposal they are displeased with. A letter from the organizations Design Review Committee to the development team said, “It’s not bad, but it could just be so much better. and should be so much better, especially at this location.”
Residents said they want less ground-level parking and more active uses to embrace and enliven American Street. They want less density, with larger units and fewer of them. And they want the parking to be free to Soko residents, because they believe many would otherwise chose to park on residential streets instead of paying to park within the complex.
The bulk of the project site is zoned CMX-3, a commercial, mixed-use classification that allows for multi-family development. But one portion remains I-2 industrial. Canus is seeking zoning relief that would allow residential development on the whole property, and is seeking community support for the project and the change.
South Kensington Community Partners Zoning Co-chair Leah Murphy said significant community planning work was done in the area about three years ago, and one of the biggest findings is “There is a lot of hope around American Street.”
American Street was once an industrial corridor. That industry is gone, and new industry with its new requirements is not likely to locate there, Murphy said. Murphy noted that the city planning commission is soon to start the Lower North District portion of the Comprehensive Plan. Community leaders hope that as part of that work, zoning changes will be made allowing for a mix of residential and live/work spaces (artists and artisans use these spaces, and are a key part of the community).
Deputy Director of New Kensington Community Development Corporation Shanta Schachter said the current plan’s street-level structured parking puts too much of a wall on American Street. This is especially problematic because this project will set precedent for future development on American. “It’s not a vision we can embrace so much,” she said.
During the presentation, Shapiro said that while the main entrance of the development will be on 2nd Street at first, that will change. “We’re very interested in the … morphology of this project. As the neighborhood develops, the project actually sort of changes with the neighborhood,” he said.
After the second phase is built, the main entry of the complex will become the area at the corner of American and Thompson streets, he said. Team members also said that the character of the American side of the development could be modified further, with more active uses, if changes in the neighborhood bring more demand for different kinds of space. This didn’t appease residents. Unless a major change to the project is desired, the developer won’t have to come back to them before starting Phase II, so neighbors felt they needed to influence the entire project while they could.
One of the more heated moments of the meeting came when Zoning Co-Chairs Murphy and Charlie Abdo began going over a list of concerns that arose from an earlier meeting with the design review committee, and density concerns were among them.
At the beginning of the developer’s presentation, Shapiro noted that his client’s proposal for 320 units yielded a development that was about half the density permitted under CMX3. With no change to the strip of property zoned industrial, 582 units could be built as of right, he said, and if the zoning relief is granted, 661 could be built.
But the residents and community leaders looked at it from a different perspective. A recent density survey they took of the neighborhood showed about 45 to 50 dwellings per acre of land. But both this proposal and another brought to the community this month have a much higher density – around 100 dwellings per acre, Murphy said. Continuing development at this density would greatly change the character of the neighborhood, she and others noted. The density study findings were first discussed at an earlier part of the meeting, before the Soko project team arrived.
“It’s not that it is too dense,” said Canus President Susan Rabinovitch. “It is certainly much more dense than an empty two-and-a-half acres, but this is not a dense site by any standard,” given that the zoning code says Canus could build about twice as many units as proposed.
Murphy told her about the density study done by South Kensington Community Partners. Paul Rabinovitch pointed out that the CMX-3 zoning is not residential, and is different than the zoning even across the street.
Murphy pointed out that while the zoning is not residential, they are building residences. The density and other issues will inform the vote the community takes on whether or not to support the project at the April meeting, she said.
Meeting attendees discussed the project after the Soko Lofts team left. Abdo and Philadelphia City Planning Commission Community Planner David Fecteau, the planner for the area, told residents they have some leverage if relief is sought before the Zoning Board of Adjustment. But they cautioned that the developers could go another route and seek relief via a city council bill – circumstances in which the community would have less say. “It’s not unusual if (a developer) can’t get the ZBA to do something, they get an ordinance and rezone the whole thing,” Fecteau said. “If city council changes (the industrial strip of land) to CMX-3, you have no leverage whatsoever.”
The proposed unit breakdown is 2 percent live-work units, 12 percent studios, 63 percent one-bedrooms and 23 percent two-bedrooms. The studios are roughly 450 square feet each, and Fecteau suggested asking the developer to increase their size, thereby decreasing the number of units. Some meeting-goers said they would also like more two-bedroom units in the mix.
Whatever route zoning relief comes from, the project will go before the planning commission’s design review committee, Fecteau said. That committee’s decisions are not binding, but advisory to the PCPC on decisions, just as the PCPC is advisory to city council.
Residents asked the development team if the live-work spaces would have special ventilation that some artists require. Susan Rabinovitch said she would look into this, but couldn’t promise until she determined how that might impact insurance coverage.
When asked if some of the units might be owner-occupied, Susan Rabinovitch said right now, there is no financing for that sort of development, but that could change.
Rabinovitch liked residents’ suggestion that walkers be able to go in through the 2nd Street entrance to the courtyard, walk across the courtyard, and right out the other side onto American Street.
She pointed out an upper-level, glassed-in lounge area where residents could hang out and get wifi and a spectacular view of the city skyline. She said watching people congregate at Starbucks was her inspiration.
She was also amenable to allowing community groups to hold fundraisers or meetings in some of the public spaces.
Some of the green space and plazas would be clearly accessible to the public – they border streets and sidewalks. But some would be behind a gate. Shapiro said the gate would be closed, but not locked. Many residents thought this an odd concept – if gates are closed, most people won’t ever try to open them, and so the space behind them is private. Shapiro said the gates established boundaries without keeping people out.