A PCPC pitch for East Falls historic district

1942 WPA Land Use Plan

July 17

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

A proposed historic district for a portion of East Falls that includes 210 homes on the 3400 blocks of Midvale Avenue, West Penn Street, and West Queen Lane will get an airing via a “review and comment” before the Philadelphia City Planning Commission at Tuesday’s monthly meeting (July 21, 1 p.m.).

The case for a “Tudor East Falls Historic District Designation” – to be added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places – will be presented by Jonathan Farnham and Erin Cote of the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

Farnham and Cote will explain that the district meets at least four criteria outlined in the Historic Preservation Ordinance of the Philadelphia Code. The district:
•    Reflects the environment “in an era characterized by the distinctive Tudor Revival style”
•    Embodies distinguishing characteristics of that style
•    Represents “an established and familiar visual feature” of East Falls, owing to the “singular uniformity” of the designated blocks, “in particular the cathedral and cottage rows.”
•    Exemplifies “the cultural, economic, and social heritage of the community, as East Falls was going through a fundamental shift from housing for workers to a bedroom community.”

The Planning Commission staff is expected to recommend approval of the designation.

Italian Market Revitalization
Members of the Passyunk Square Civic Association will present an “information only” presentation to the Planning Commission for an area of 9th Street south of Washington Avenue. The group has plans for development and infrastructure improvements in what is known as the southern portion of the Italian Market area – a forlorn area roughly stretching to Federal Street through to Wharton, where the large Capitolo Playground is situated on a full city block to the west, and Geno’s and Pat’s Steaks on the east side of the street.

The plan also incorporates the blocks reaching to 8th Street to the east and 10th Street to the west.

“Once the Italian Market started to make the transition from a local, daily shopping market to a shopping destination, the Lower Italian Market was the first to decline and the hardest hit, as evidenced by its vacancies and underutilized storefronts,” the PSCA says in its executive summary for the project’s report, published in August 2008.  

Interface Studio and Econsult are working with Passyunk Square as consultants on the project, which is said to have funding of an undisclosed amount from the city Commerce Department’s Commercial Corridor Support Program.

Encore for Philly Live complex
Another info-only presentation is expected via an amendment to the 1994 master plan for the Sports Stadium District. The proposed “Philly Live” development, adjacent to the Wachovia Center in the area around Broad and Pattison avenues, S. 11th Street and I-95, is now taking the shape of nine buildings.

One of them would be a 300-room hotel – about the same number of rooms as the Ramada at the airport, the Warwick at 17th & Locust, the Westin (within Two Liberty Place), the Sofitel at 17th & Sansom and the Ritz-Carlton.

A joint venture between with Comcast-Spectacor and Baltimore-based The Cordish Companies, “Philly Live! will serve as a regional destination that will feature a variety of year-round attractions in a vibrant main street setting that will energize the South Philadelphia area surrounding the sports complex,” the Cordish corporate Web site proclaims.

“The district will feature a distinctive canopy covering the center plaza area of the development and will offer visitors a unique mix of culinary, retail and entertainment experiences.”

John Buck Co., 21st & Chestnut tower
The 30-story mixed-use tower slated for 2116-32 Chestnut Street, to be built on the site of an existing medical and office building, may finally get the Planning Commission’s green light.

The residential tower would have 322 units and related spaces, with more than 9,200 square feet of retail, about 44,000 square feet of office space (to include the continued use by the Sidney Hillman Medical Center) and 119 above-grade parking spaces. The Rittenhouse Square project is bounded by Chestnut, Samson, Van Pelt and 22nd streets.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission has approved the design, but the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia has spoken out against it, along with the demolition of the existing 1950 structure, and has appealed the Historical Commission’s decision to accept the developer’s claim of financial hardship.

Though the Planning Commission’s staff, at its June meeting, recommended approval of the zoning variances sought by the Buck Co., the commissioners decided to wait an extra month because a group of residents and business owners on 22nd Street claimed they were not informed of the demolition and re-build until just days before the meeting.  (PlanPhilly, June 24, 2009: http://www.planphilly.com/node/9184).

The project, though, has been discussed in public since at least January, when the developers gave an “information only” presentation to the Planning Commission. Curiously, the zoning matter for the development was pulled from the May Planning Commission meeting, with Executive Director Alan Greenberger saying more time was needed for community outreach.

Two nearby churches – the First Unitarian Church and the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion – were opposed to the project, but voiced support at the June meeting, saying the developer had worked very closely with them to iron out difference and make changes to the design.

After Tuesday’s expected final approval from the Planning Commission, the developer moves on to see the Zoning Board of Adjustment on July 29.

The Preservation Alliance, on its Web site, says the proposed building is “incompatible in height and character with the historic district.

“In addition, Alliance Executive Director John Andrew Gallery has suggested that the proposal may be in conflict with zoning law as indicated by the Commonwealth Court decision in 2005 regarding One Meridian Partners. In that case, the Court ruled that substantive changes in [floor-area ratio] require a re-zoning of the site, not a variance. The Court also ruled that substantial evidence of hardship in the development of the property had to be demonstrated. No such demonstration of hardship has been made by the developer or property owner.”

The Alliance noted that the revised design “slightly lowers” the original planned height and shifts the base of the building, along with the widening and landscaping of Van Pelt Street (at the rear of the property, where loading docks would be located).

Gallery also said the plan fails to comply with preservation guidelines set by the Secretary of the Interior, and that the Buck Co. “failed to make a sufficient case of financial hardship as required by the city’s historic preservation ordinance.”

Part of that is that the property “was not thoroughly marketed for sale,” as required by law, Gallery maintains.

The Chicago-based developer is a national heavy hitter, with numerous high-profile office, residential and mixed-use projects in New York and Chicago to its credit. It is currently redeveloping the Sears Tower for that iconic building’s new ownership.

Before his departure last month, former Deputy Mayor for Commerce and Planning Andy Altman said that the John Buck Co. is “exactly the kind of developer we want to attract here.”

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.


East Falls Community Council: http://www.eastfallscommunity.org/;
Historic district nomination (PDF):

Passyunk Square Civic Association: http://www.passyunksquare.org/;
Lower Italian Market Revitalization project summary (PDF)

The Cordish Cos. (virtual aerial views, tour of Philly Live; date published unknown):

Preservation Alliance (“Current Advocacy Issues” page):

John Buck Co.

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