A plan for mixed-income development in North Philly suffers setback

Councilmember María Quiñones-Sánchez withdrew a bill to rezone for a 20-story apartment tower on a former scrapyard and 40 rowhouses.

At the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden in Kensington, the words “Not for sale” are painted on the street as a message to developers and the city. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

At the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden in Kensington, the words “Not for sale” are painted on the street as a message to developers and the city. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Councilmember María Quiñones-Sánchez isn’t giving up on a plan to build housing on vacant South Kensington land.

The North Philadelphia councilmember last week killed a bill that would have legalized plans for a 20-story apartment tower on the vacant site of Morris Iron and Steel on N. American Street between Berks and Norris Streets and 40 rowhouses on nearby city-owned land. This week, she said she is working with developers Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, or APM, and Scannapieco Development Corporation on a public-private partnership to enable the project.

“More news to come later,” she said in an email.

The bill Quiñones-Sánchez withdrew would have allowed housing development in an area currently zoned for industrial use on both sides of American Street — roughly from Oxford Street to Lehigh Avenue. It was part of a package that Quiñones called “the most aggressive affordable legislation on the books” because of a requirement that developers include at least 20% affordable units. But the City Planning Commission unanimously rejected the project arguing those specifications were not clear.

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When asked about her decision to subsequently pull the bill out of the legislative process, Quiñones-Sánchez cited environmental remediation costs that could be “prohibitive” for a developer as well as concerns from neighbors.

“I agree with my neighbors that our City Planning Commission has more work to present a parcel-by-parcel plan so that neighbors can access opportunities for community gardens, side yards, and affordable housing, though I am worried that the Zoning Board will continue to permit unaffordable housing if we do not act soon,” Quiñones-Sánchez said in an email.

The package’s second bill created the overlay on American between Oxford and Lehigh to open the area for residential development. It was sent back to the Rules Committee to make amendments required by local RCOs, including a defined 20% affordability mandate and a requirement for the developers to meet with neighbors to discuss jobs and community benefits.

“I very much agree with those who want to see more affordability and housing for the poor and working poor communities I represent, which is why I led the fight for citywide mandatory inclusionary zoning,” Quiñones-Sanchez said.

The bill’s death surprised a group of longtime residents and members of the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden who have been fighting against the project since March, when they found out the Land Bank proposal to lease 59 vacant lots in about four city blocks between West Norris and Berks streets, 3rd and 4th streets, to APM for five years.

APM, in partnership with Scannapieco, wanted to build a mixed-income housing development that included two-family units in tiny 550 square feet lots, some of which were in use by the garden and residents. Members of the community argued they never got a chance to give input on the process.

The development proposal has come into public view as the city confronts a growing affordability crisis, a looming recession and significant political pressure to meet demands for equitable development. On the same day as the City Planning Commission voted against the American Street rezoning, Mayor Jim Kenney found himself negotiating with activists over encampments of people experiencing homelessness. Among other things, Kenney has vowed to experiment with tiny houses built on small lots.

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In August, the Land Bank agreed to hold all eight lots used by the Iglesias garden and nine side lots and gardens that neighbors have been taking care of for decades. The Land Board Bank has to approve the resolution to transfer those lots to the residents in October.

Yet residents still opposed the bill, arguing the proposed projects were not affordable for longtime residents and would have taken job opportunities, displaced residents, and destroyed garden and green spaces in the area.

“The neighborhood will be gone,” said Lauren Troop, an organizer with the Iglesias garden in an email announcing a “Kill the bill speak-out” for a Saturday in September.

The rally turned into a celebration after members of the community found out that Quiñones had killed the bill a day earlier.

“I don’t know anywhere in Philly where we have been able to push against gentrification and write our own future. We can do that,” said Mara Henao, a Kensington resident and Philly Socialists co-chair, according to Generosity.

The next Committee on Rules hearing is set for Tuesday morning.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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