By-right proposal for Dranoff tower in Fitler Square draws ire of near neighbors

Carl Dranoff’s One Riverside project, a 21-story, 167,000-square-foot apartment tower at 25th and Locust, adjacent to a community garden and the Schuylkill River Trail, could be built as proposed entirely by right, without a trip to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

In Philadelphia, that is a rarity. Developers often claim they can’t make projects of that scale work within the confines of the zoning code, and seek community support for zoning variances. Neighborhood groups often use that to their advantage by negotiating their support for changes in design, public amenities, or other agreements. But when a by-right project is proposed, communities have no legal leverage. Sometimes they protest anyway.

At a meeting of the Center City Residents Association on Tuesday night, a string of residents who live in immediate proximity to the One Riverside proposal asked the group’s zoning committee to oppose the project when it goes before the Civic Design Review Committee, likely next month. The CCRA zoning committee said it would consider their comments and deliberate next week. As the local Registered Community Organization, CCRA gets to put a representative on the review committee.

Civic Design Review is, as a former PlanPhilly reporter put it, “a process with no decision.” The group’s reviews are advisory only, and unless the property’s zoning were to be changed, Dranoff could pull permits for One Riverside tomorrow. He has already received a conditional zoning approval, which requires that he go through the CDR process.

Some residents at Tuesday night’s meeting seemed to feel a zoning change should be pursued. Many of the speakers said the property should be zoned for recreational use and incorporated into the Schuylkill River waterfront park system, which would mean the city would have to compensate Dranoff for the parcel. One resident said the city should trade Dranoff a property it owns in some other neighborhood for the parcel, at 210 South 25th Street, and turn the latter into a park.

Residents’ objections to the proposal were not surprising. Its 21 stories are too many, said some. Its 84 parking spaces are too few, said others. Though architect Cecil Baker said he felt it was his responsibility to keep the “view shed” open to the river by designing a narrow facade facing east and west, some residents feel the sheer scale of the building will degrade the character of the neighborhood and the experience of the riverfront trail.

Many were concerned about the project’s impact on the adjacent community garden. In the Inquirer last week, Inga Saffron worried that the building, if clothed in glass, could reflect too much sun and burn the garden’s plants, a phenomenon that apparently came to pass near a new glass tower in Dallas. Baker said the facade facing the garden would be half glass and half metal panels, and that the reflectivity of the glass would be far less than that of the glass on the Dallas building.

Dranoff, Baker said, is “a guy who puts money on the outsides of buildings.”

Many noted that the development would violate aspects of the neighborhood plan that Center City Residents Association adopted in 2009. John Randolph, a former president of the Schuylkill River Development Council, said that the project is only allowed by a “quirk” of the zoning code, and that the site should not be zoned RMX-3.

“The neighborhood doesn’t need a monument to commemorate a zoning mistake,” said another resident.

Kiki Bolender, an architect who co-created the report Common Ground for Rebuilding Our City during the zoning reform process, took an alternate view. Density is good, Bolender said, and new neighbors would make the neighborhood and its parks and trails safer. Bolender said she didn’t believe years ago that the Schuylkill River trail would ever be safe, but that new residents and visitors are proving it can be. She said residents should focus on negotiating for improved design and site planning, rather than opposing the project outright, which she said is futile given its zoning classification.

The line of speakers skewed toward opposition, but there was also slightly fainter applause for the few speakers who supported the project, including one man who told residents concerned about parking to “get rid of your cars.”

The last speaker of the evening pointed out that the neighborhood is on “the sunset side of the city.”

“It’s our privilege to enjoy that,” he said.

Privilege, yes. But not a right.

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