City Council to consider legislation allowing for a 722-unit, 35-acre apartment complex in Eastwick

Korman Residential plans to build 722 rental apartments in a two-story complex on now-vacant land in Eastwick, near the airport and John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.

The area has been under Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority control and slated for residential development for decades under the Eastwick Urban Renewal Plan. Korman has had the option to develop it for many years. But the renewal plan calls for single family housing, not multi-family, so Korman needs a zoning change to build as planned.

Korman is also asking the city to strike streets, pedestrian walkways and utility rights-of-way within a 35-acre parcel bounded by Lindbergh Boulevard, Dicks Place, 86th Street and Sheckctor Place. This week, Korman received planning commission approval for those zoning and streets bills, bringing it a step closer to building the apartments, which project attorney Peter Kelsen described as “workforce housing, for folks who move to the city to work at the airport, stadiums” or other nearby places, with rents between $1,100 and $1,450 per month. It would be built in four phases, with a 2018 completion, he said.

The streets bill was approved by city council’s streets committee Tuesday, a hearing on the zoning bill is set for June 12, and Korman hopes city council will vote to approve both before its summer recess.

Kelsen said building the one- and two-bedroom apartments will cost about $102 million and create 590 jobs during construction. After the 10-year tax abatement expires, it would generate $2.62 million in annual tax revenue for the city, and when construction is completed in 2013, Eastwick will have about 1,000 new residents.

Eastwick’s current residents are concerned the development will exacerbate flooding issues, change the character of the neighborhood and create traffic congestion, said Carolyn Moseley of the Concerned Citizens of Eastwick Coalition. They are frustrated, Moseley said, because they have not been adequately informed about the development and the related ordinances and they want an opportunity to learn more about the plans and provide feedback. “The community is in total opposition to this rezoning and to this development,” Moseley told the planning commission.

Moseley said the “land soaks up rainwater” in an area that is very prone to flooding. She also said that current residents want more homeownership, not more apartments, because renters are “transients” who are not invested in the neighborhood.

Moseley said in a later phone interview if the development was single family homes built under the guidelines of current zoning, and the developer had better informed residents, there would be no issue.

Gary Stolz, manager of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, was not at the planning meeting, but said in a phone interview he worries about what the development might do to bird and animal residents of the area, who “do not recognize political boundaries” and frequent the site slated for the apartments. “The undeveloped land adjacent to the refuge provides a buffer for important wildlife,” he said.

Stolz’s jurisdiction is within the park boundaries, so the loss of nearby habitat is out of his control – especially since Heinz has no money to purchase land. But if something that happens outside has an impact on the refuge, it becomes his business, he said, and “any development adjacent to the boundary has the potential for impacts.”  He gave a few examples: Non-native vegetation could spread from landscaping into the refuge, crowding out native vegetation that animals use for food. Escaped domestic animals, such as cats, could kill birds or other wildlife.

Kelsen said in a phone interview that Korman has been talking to people at the refuge, and they have not said they have any problems with the development. Stolz said his first briefing with Korman was happening Wednesday afternoon.

It would be better for the refuge if no development happened, Stolz said. But if it does, development can be done in ways that lessen impact. For example, he said, all landscaping could be done with native plants.

“The way we’ve oriented the buildings, along all the property lines, but especially with Heinz, there is a significant set-back and a green area buffer,” Kelsen said in the phone interview. He noted that while Lindbergh Boulevard’s right-of-way continues past the end of the actual road, and unless and until the city decides to extend the road, that space provides an additional buffer.

Korman met with residents and District 2 Councilman Kenyatta Johnson last week. Kelsen told planning that was not the first meeting with residents, but the third. Moseley said in a later phone interview that last week’s was the first meeting she knew about, and one of the previous meetings was a one-on-one with the Concerned Citizens of Eastwick president, which was arranged after neighbors saw surveyors on the property and called Korman to ask what was happening. Moseley said at last week’s meeting, residents were told about a June 12 zoning hearing, but were not told about the planning commission session. 

Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia attorney Amy Cahn, who has been working with both Eastwick residents and the Friends of Heinz Refuge, said many more people would have attended the commission meeting had they known. “There is an openness to single family housing, consistent with current zoning,” she said. “There is an interest in preserving some or all of that land … and have it be joined with the Heinz Wildlife Refuge.”  The wildlife option brought cheers and applause at the public meeting, she said, but single family would “not create as much increase in population or traffic.”

In the phone interview, Kelsen said no one should be surprised by the development, since residential development has been slated for so long. And while proposed legislation would change the underlying zoning from R9A to R12, the density of the development will actually be less than it could be under R9A. “The way we’ve laid out the proposed development site really maximizes open space – there is less than 25 percent building coverage,” he said. “Contrast that with R9A – that could be 80 percent building coverage.”

Kelsen said the zoning change is also in keeping with the area, as Korman’s nearby International City complex has R12 zoning. “This really allows for the continuation of the Eastwick neighborhood, and a brand new community in an area slated for residential development,” he said.

While the residents prefer single-family development, Kelsen said the market does not. “In the economics of the marketplace, this residential rental is possible, very do-able. Single family is not do-able,” he said.

Cahn said she was surprised to learn of a third bill related to the project, authorizing the city to acquire 93 acres adjacent to the parcel for which the apartments are planned for use by the Philadelphia International Airport, and predicted when Eastwick residents found out about this, it would add “more fuel to the fire.”

This land is also now vacant and Korman had an option to build on it as well, but as part of a settlement agreement stemming from a lawsuit that “involved a condemnation action between the city and a Korman entity” unrelated to the site near the airport, Kelsen said, Korman is to “release” the development rights back to the city, and the land is to go to the airport. A property bill related to the transfer was also introduced by Councilman Johnson.

During this week’s planning commission meeting, Chairman Alan Greenberger took issue with some points raised by Moseley and Cahn. He said that he “had a lot of trouble believing” the development would create air quality or traffic issues, due to the low density of the area. Greenberger really did not like the argument that home owners are better for a community than renters.

“I have a real problem being against renters,” he said. “Everybody is at some time a renter,” he said. “In this economy, renting is going up in this city significantly” with just over 50 percent of Philadelphians owning their homes and just under 50 percent renting, he said.

But both Greenberger and other commissioners urged the developer to do more to reach out to the community. Before council votes, Greenberger said, “I would really urge that there be ongoing discussions with the community about what’s happening, the intended audience, storm water management, all of it,” he said.

Planning Commission Executive Director Gary Jastrzab told Greenberger, and Greenberger told the room, that due to the size of the development, Korman will have to work with the water department on a storm water management plan. 

Kelsen said because the apartments would be developed under an agreement with the PRA, that agreement “will come back to you, as an item on your agenda. You will have more plans and detail to consider.”

“When it does come back, I know this commission would be a lot happier” if residents say they have been informed, and if there is “a broader sense of the community response” to the proposal,” Greenberger said.

Kelsen told commissioners his client will continue to meet with residents. “We are committed to work with the community to hopefully create a benefits agreement” outlining how storm water will be managed, traffic will be managed both before and after construction, and wildlife will be protected, he said. After the meeting, he exchanged contact information with Cahn. 
Greenberger said he did not know what the airport will do with the land, but imagined they would hold on to it, and in the future build an “adjunct use” to the airport.

“I do think a discussion needs to be held with the airport before they develop anything,” he said. Jastrzab then said a few words to Greenberger off-mike. “Gary is telling me the airport has committed to those discussions,” Greenberger said.

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