Apartments, commercial space proposed for Passyunk firehouse site

Alterra wants to build hundreds of apartments and create new commercial spaces on one of the last major underdeveloped parcels in Passyunk Square.

PFD Engine 10 in South Philadelphia will be demolished under a plan to build housing on the city land. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

PFD Engine 10 in South Philadelphia will be demolished under a plan to build housing on the city land. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Alterra Property Group wants to build hundreds of apartments and create new commercial spaces on one of the last major underdeveloped parcels in the booming Passyunk Square neighborhood.

The plan — selected by the city through a public request for proposals — would transform a city-owned municipal complex that is occupied by a police station, fire station, and former fleet maintenance building. The 1100 Wharton Street project has drawn significant community interest, and requests for specific elements such as affordable housing and classroom space to relieve capacity problems at a nearby elementary school, said Sarah Anton, president of the Passyunk Square Civic Association, which worked with city officials to select the plan for the public land.

“This is just dead-center in the middle of our neighborhood, and so what happens here really will speak to a lot of things that people have been planning on. Also, it’s a city-owned site, so folks are interested in how the city allocates our shared resources,” Anton said.

Alterra, which developed the adjoining Wharton Street Lofts project six years ago, will propose demolishing the firehouse on 12th Street and replacing it with a mixed-use building that has 150 to 200 apartments and ground-level commercial space, Councilmember Mark Squilla said. Twenty-five percent of the units would be designated as affordable, with income-adjusted rents for tenants earning 60 percent of the area median income (AMI), or about $50,000 for a family of four.

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The 1100 Wharton Municipal complex in South Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Senior housing, pedestrian improvements, better stormwater management, and more public parking are among the elements suggested by nearby residents and city planning officials. Alterra will present its plan to respond to those requests on Monday night at a meeting hosted by Squilla, who represents the South Philadelphia neighborhood.

Neighbors want area to remain diverse

The 1.3-acre site bounded by 11th, 12th, Wharton and Reed streets sits near the thriving East Passyunk retail corridor. Neighboring properties include Columbus Square Park, which is undergoing a major renovation, and an Acme grocery story on the site of the former Moyamensing prison, a local landmark.

While the proposal could still change based on the community’s response, neighbor Joanne Werdel argued that the final version must include housing that supports the racial and economic diversity that makes the neighborhood a great place to live.

“The city has an obligation to provide as much affordable housing as possible, especially in a neighborhood like ours that is rapidly becoming completely unaffordable. It’s no longer affordable for even the people who teach our kids in school, or the police officers, or the firefighters,” said Werdel, who lives across the street from the police station. “There aren’t that many opportunities for the city, especially in this neighborhood, to use city-owned land to make more affordable housing.”

Shops at the intesection of Reed and Passynk Ave. in South Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Patricia Funaro, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, is one of a number of nearby residents who have called for the creation of affordable housing, specifically for senior citizens, as part of the redevelopment.

“We have a lot of young people, which is nice, but a neighborhood needs a mix of ages, so I think it would be very nice to have housing for older adults, too,” said Funaro, who works for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging and serves on the Columbus Square Park advisory council.

Squilla said the residents of the affordable units could include senior citizens, but the language of the property’s deed makes it difficult to create housing limited only to seniors. He said Alterra has instead proposed that, as part of the development deal, it will give the city $2 million toward developing senior housing at the site of the nearby South Philadelphia Older Adult Center on Passyunk Avenue. That site was recommended in the city’s Philadelphia2035 plan, released by the Planning Commission four years ago.

Alterra’s proposal would also follow Philadelphia2035’s recommendation that a new firehouse be built on 11th Street next to the police station, Squilla said. Next door, a nearly block-long, 106-year-old building on Reed Street that once housed a fleet maintenance facility and a branch of the Office of Innovation and Technology will be converted to commercial use such as offices.

Squilla noted that the strong community interest in shaping the project led to an unusual development process. Instead of sitting on the developer selection committee himself or sending a member of his staff, he asked members of the Passyunk Square Civic Association to join the panel. That model of community input could possibly be replicated for future projects on city properties, he said.

Shops and homes at the intersection of Passyunk and Reed Streets. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Anton, who served on the committee, said the PSCA solicited public comments via its website over the last year and passed on questions about the project density, parking, affordable and senior housing, historic preservation, and other priorities to prospective developers.

“All of those issues continued to go back to the selection committee and to the bidders to continue to refine their projects. That’s where we are now: here are all the things the neighborhood wants, and now the city feels like they have something that speaks to a lot of those,” she said.

Alterra managing partner Leo Addimando said his company began talking to city officials about redeveloping the site five years ago, after it completed Wharton Lofts on a property contiguous with the municipal complex. Alterra saw that the site was not being used efficiently from a land-use perspective, and began the process of coordinating with the police, fire department, public property, and other city agencies with stakes in the tract, he said.

“It took a long time to get them all rowing in the right direction,” said Addimando.

Solving the eternal parking problem

Alterra would build 3 private parking spots for every 10 new housing units, and no new public parking. But at Squilla’s insistence, a city-owned lot across Reed Street that is used for storing city vehicles will be turned into a residential permit lot for at least 60 cars, the councilman said. Parking would be free for residents with city-issued permits.

“That was my request, only because the parking has been an issue. That’s city-owned land that has to be part of this project, or this project won’t move forward,” said Squilla, whose sway over land-use decisions in his district gives him veto power over the redevelopment. “It wasn’t part of the plan, but after working with the Department of Public Property, we made it a part of the plan.”

Complaints about parking in Passyunk Square increased recently after a reconfiguration of South 11th Street that added a two-way bicycle lane along with new signage, daylit intersections, and a crosswalk between the police station and Acme. The project eliminated some parking spaces, sparking angry comments from some residents and demands that they be restored.

“The population density of this community has gotten so high that it really can’t accommodate all the people in cars,” said Funaro said. “That’s really gotten to be a big issue.”

The lot Squilla wants to see converted to permit parking is on a portion of Reed Street that curves to accommodate the Acme store and its large parking lot, which interrupt the street grid. Adding new residents, businesses, lighting and better pedestrian amenities there could be one significant benefit of the project, Werdel said.

“There are a lot of blind corners back there. It’s kind of like a no-man’s land. Having people live there would make a huge difference,” she said.

Schools “bursting at the seams”

In addition to calling for parking and affordable housing, some residents have urged the city to create space that can be used by students of nearby Andrew Jackson Elementary, which has seen enrollment increases that threaten to exceed its capacity.

“Almost all the schools down here are K-8, and if they’re not bursting at their seams, they’re trending in such a way that they will. They’re going to be there before we know it,” said Aaron Edelman, a Jackson parent who volunteers with its Home and School Association.

Edelman said he and other parents met with Squilla and school district officials, and suggested that the development include space to house a pre-K program currently sited at Jackson, or to serve some other educational purpose. Squilla said Alterra “would love” to lease a floor of the office building to the district, but it depends on the district expressing interest and determining that the building can be adapted for school uses.

School district officials said earlier this year that they were commissioning a demographic study to determine their long-term space needs in the area. They have not yet announced the study results.

Addressing community needs in the area around the municipal complex was also a focus of the Philadelphia2035 comprehensive plan. The document describes the area as unfriendly for pedestrians and “out of character with the rest of the inviting, low-scale and walkable nature of Passyunk Avenue.”

As part of a citywide remapping outlined in Philadelphia2035, the municipal complex property was zoned as industrial-commercial, and it will need to be rezoned again to industrial-residential to enable the Alterra proposal, Squilla said. Under City Council’s practice of councilmanic prerogative, it will be up to Squilla to introduce bills allowing the rezoning and sale of the site. If the development plan wins neighborhood support, Council could consider the bills by late spring, he said.

Monday’s meeting takes place at Capitolo Recreation Center, 900 Federal St., starting at 6:30 p.m.

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