Old or New Philadelphia? Francisville decides; will the City hear us?

June 26

OPINION / By Kristin Szwajkowski

On June 23, residents and property owners in Francisville voted on what could arguably be the most significant residential development project for the neighborhood and the larger art museum area community.  How we got here is a long road involving a 15-month comprehensive neighborhood planning process that resulted in the 2007 release of Moving Francisville Forward: a blue print for the future prepared by Interface Studio LLC, years of resident education about equitable development and an organization’s struggle for recognition and respect in City Hall.  The question remains: will the City listen to what Francisville has decided it wants for its future?

Francisville, a hidden gem located in lower north Philadelphia, has been working hard to improve its image as a poor, dirty and undesirable neighborhood riddled with vacancy. While it still has a way to go there have been noticeable improvements in the past several years thanks to the efforts of dedicated residents like Penelope Giles and the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation (FNDC).   Despite the economic downturn, residential developers are still rehabbing and infilling in Francisville. Most of those properties, widely supported by residents, are traditional brick row homes in keeping with the traditional style of the neighborhood that help to maintain the continuity of the urban fabric.

While there are close to 400 vacant lots and scores of vacant buildings scattered about the neighborhood, there is only one unclaimed large cleared parcel in all of Francisville. An odd triangular shape at 19th and Wylie Streets, just fewer than 1.5 acres, with an amazing view of Center City is prime property for new residential. Its lack of development is attributed to unconfirmed environmental concerns (the property was a paint factory) and City ownership.  Residents agree that the development of this parcel will transform Francisville, for better or worse, and determine the neighborhood’s future.

In April, the Office of Housing and Community Development (OHDC) finally released an RFP for the development of the 19th and Wylie site (FNDC had given their input into the RFP last year) but only gave a three week turn around for the submission of proposals.  FNDC and the Francisville Neighborhood Civic Association (FNCA) scrambled into action to have the deadline extended knowing that the response rate would be extremely low on this important project. Not only was the deadline extremely brief but the community was not asked to sit on the review panel.  Multiple phone calls, emails and letters from the Francisville zoning committee went for the most part unanswered by OHDC, Councilman Clarke’s office and then Deputy Mayor Andy Altman’s office. Essentially the only response was “the deadline cannot be extended.”  Why the community was cut out of the selection process is still a mystery.  The RFP required that developers “…seek local community input for their plans and share their proposals with community-based organizations…” and “Indicate the specific actions that have been taken to identify the community group(s) that represents the neighborhood where the project will be located and to notify these groups of the proposed plans.”  Even with FNDC’s attempt to circulate the RFP to potential developers in order to generate more interest, only three developers contacted the neighborhood zoning committee for input.  Of the three interested parties only two choose to submit proposals.  Mosaic pulled out citing insufficient time to develop a quality proposal by May 8 that could be competitive.

Two Proposals
Despite not having a seat on the selection panel, FNDC forged ahead with its usual community meeting and voting process for development projects.  On June 16, FNDC held a community meeting attended by roughly 60 residents and property owners where each developer presented their plan and answered questions.  First up was a partnership between the Hankin Group, Sam Sherman Associates and the Dale Corporation who presented Cameron Square: a traditional Philadelphia brick townhouse and condo development enclosing a parking courtyard that includes 26 three-story townhomes and 60 condo units in a separate 4-story building.  The development could also incorporate a café or small byo-type restaurant on the corner.  The New Urbanist style of the development would easily fit right into the existing neighborhood fabric.  Yet there was not much green space left over given the project’s layout fronting on all three streets.  Second up was Onion Flats who presented a radically different concept.  Named Grape Flats, this development proposal includes a five-story 70 unit modern sustainable condo building fronting only on 19th Street with parking tucked under the building. Grape Flats would include 65 percent open space, a portion of which would include a vineyard for community use. However, the open space makes this project is less dense.  The RFP allowed the developers to name their price for the property.  Hankin offered $900,000 and Onion Flats offered $0.   Granted the environmental condition of the site is unknown and could ultimately drive up the final development costs. Onion Flats pricing rational is that the positive benefit back to the community in terms of sustainability and open space warrants their offer.

It was clear from the presentations that the initial input from the Francisville zoning committee was taken into account by both developers.  Each incorporated additional density beyond what the RFP suggested, included green building elements, offered to work with the community to refine the plan, to hire or train local residents for construction and to provide some sort of community benefit assistance for the Francisville Recreation Center and Playground located directly across the street from the site. FNDC has never made it a secret that Sam Sherman previously acted as an advisor on development issues when FNDC was starting out and participated in the comprehensive neighborhood planning process in 2006-2007.  Mr. Sherman and the Hankin Group have been interested in the 19th and Wylie parcel for several years and have attended community meetings to hear what neighborhood residents want and need.  Onion Flats are new comers to Francisville—previously unaware of 19th and Wylie, FNDC or the community’s preferences—but they did take the time to read and appreciate the comprehensive neighborhood plan, incorporating and expanding elements of the plan into their proposal. So the real difference between the two: design philosophy and price.

Old vs. New
FNDC decided to break the presentations and the community vote with a week in between so that residents could digest the information and formulate additional questions. It also gave FNDC time to organize field trips to some of the developer’s projects—Eagleview (Hankin), Spring Arts Point (Sam Sherman) and Thin Flats (Onion Flats).  During the voting meeting on June 23 over an hour was spent in animated commentary from residents and property owners asking questions, voicing their opinions and preferences for one project or the other. Some called the Grape Flats an eyesore others called Cameron Square a fortress. Comments seemed to be roughly equally divided between the two developments and it seemed as though the vote would be quite close. The drawback to breaking up the meeting in two parts was the attrition caused by some of the attendee’s inability to attend both sessions.  Some who saw the presentations did not attend the voting meeting and those who did not attend the presentations the previous week were ineligible to cast a vote.  As a result, attendance at the voting meeting was unfortunately not as high as anticipated.  Regardless, when the votes were cast and verbally tallied, it was clear that in a complete surprise landslide Onion Flats took nearly every vote.  Only two people voted for the Hankin Group and one person voted for neither developer. On this particular project, Francisville has decided to embrace the new.

Francisville Speaks
FNDC will be sending a letter to Councilman Clarke, OHDC, City Planning, the RDA and the developers expressing the overwhelming result of the vote and outlining the community’s desires for the project, which align with the existing neighborhood plan. Although the City decides our fate, FNDC is committed to working with the selected developer for the best possible outcome for the neighborhood.  Francisville may not have a formal vote in the developer selection but the community has spoken loud and clear about its future.  Francisville wants to be put on the map as a model for 21st century development.  Will the City hear us?

Kristin Szwajkowski, AICP
Chair, Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal