Blackwell on proposal at 43rd and Baltimore: “Go to the zoning board”

In her Inquirer column last week, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Inga Saffron took 3rd-District Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell to task for supposedly holding up a proposed development at 43rd Street and Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia, across the street from Clark Park.

The project, Saffron wrote, has the support of nearby residents and was in fact designed with their help. By failing to support the project, Blackwell is abusing Councilmanic prerogative, Saffron argued. What’s worse, the Councilwoman had failed to explain herself or say anything about the matter.

This is odd. Usually, Councilmembers take heat for abusing their prerogative when they engage in “spot zoning,” or changing the zoning of one property to make it work for a specific development proposal. In this instance, Blackwell is being criticized for not spot zoning.

On Thursday, Blackwell told PlanPhilly that if the developers want to build something that doesn’t comply with the zoning code, they should follow the usual process of going to the zoning board. She doesn’t plan on introducing a bill.

“Then what?” she said. “Then 40th and Pine? Then everybody who wants any project will come here and not go to the zoning board. [The developer] has got to contact the community organizations; that’s the rules. We’re all for it. I don’t know anybody against it, but the process is that you go to the RCOs and then I know and I write a letter saying the majority of all RCOs and community organizations support the project … Whoever this is—I don’t know who it is—has decided he doesn’t want to go to the community organizations. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t want it, but that’s a slippery slope for me as representing everyone … We’re all for it. Just go to the community organizations.”

A number of issues are at play here. For one, Blackwell has shown in the past that she’s skeptical of the Planning Commission’s Philadelphia2035 remapping process. So far, she has declined to introduce any neighborhood-wide remapping bills in her district, even though the Planning Commission recommendations have been in place for a few years.

For another thing, even if Blackwell did elect to follow the Planning recommendations and remap the Baltimore Avenue property accordingly, the proposed development would still need variances. (For quality coverage of the history of this project and alternate proposals, visit West Philly Local.)

Under the Planning Commission’s recommendations, the property in question would be rezoned from RM-1 residential zoning to CMX-2.5, a commercial corridor classification. While that change would permit the retail space the developers want to build, it would still carry a height limit of 55 feet, or roughly five stories. The proposal would have the building rising to 10 stories at parts. 

So, in one of the stranger episodes of Philadelphia development politics, a group of developers and their many supporters in the community and the press are criticizing a politician for refusing to give a specific project special treatment.

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