City Council creates Strawberry Mansion conservation district — a first for an ‘underrepresented’ community

Homes across from Fairmount Park at 33rd and Clifford streets. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Homes across from Fairmount Park at 33rd and Clifford streets. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation scored a victory in their fight to preserve their community.

City Councilmembers unanimously approved Thursday a bill that would convert a section of the North Philadelphia neighborhood into a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District.

The new designation would enforce a series of neighborhood-specific building regulations on new construction to retain the historic character of the neighborhood where some of the housing stock goes back more than 100 years.

President of the SMCDC Tonnetta Graham said they’re excited, but “the work continues.”

“This overlay was really important for those of us who love Strawberry Mansion who have been here for generations and would like to continue to see it grow and flourish but yet keep its character that we know it to be,” Graham said.

With the bills passing, homes on streets between 50 feet and 75 feet wide can’t rise higher than 35 feet, about three stories. Those on streets less than 50 feet wide are restricted to a height of 25 feet, about two stories. Building materials such as vinyl, stucco, horizontal aluminum, and concrete masonry units on building facades “visible from a public right-of-way” would be banned.

The bill also requires that some houses have porches, and bans roof decks, while also discouraging density by denying bonuses for “dwelling unit density” and “height and density.”

The Strawberry Mansion conservation district will be the city’s seventh such district, joining a group that includes Queen Village, Powelton Village, Overbrook Farms, Roxborough and Wissahickon.

The new district will have a larger percentage of Black residents than other sections of the city with the designation. Census data shows tracts that cover the proposed district have a Black population of between 86% and 97%. Preserved districts also tend to be affluent areas and in that respect, the Strawberry Mansion district will be different too as it includes census tracts where nearly half of the population lives in poverty.

“This underrepresented and underserved community should be commended for utilizing this tool that doesn’t get utilized in communities like Strawberry Mansion,” Graham said.

Daniel Trubman, a member of the local urbanist political action committee 5th Square, testified against the bill prior to the vote. He said setting development standards should be “a citywide process.”

Trubman invoked Society Hill, where City Councilmember Mark Squilla, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, introduced a bill in January that would place a height restriction on a stretch of Walnut Street, increase parking requirements and eliminate zoning bonuses tied to historic preservation.

Mayor Jim Kenney vetoed the Society Hill bill in October after it too passed council unanimously. Trubman expressed hope that Kenney would do the same for the Strawberry Mansion bill.

“I am afraid it is going to lead to a cycle where each neighborhood attempts to get a different form of downzoning, which will only exacerbate the citywide [affordability] issue,” Trubman said.

Council ultimately overruled Kenney’s veto of the Society Hill overlay and Lauren Cox, a spokesperson for the mayor, said Thursday that while the city’s Law Department must still review the bill, Kenney “intends to sign it.”

Graham said the purpose of the bill is to give Strawberry Mansion residents a say in what gets built in their community, and that the mayor understands “our love for our community” and “our “commitment for our community.”

The proposed NCO restrictions would cover residential structures within the area bounded by Lehigh Avenue, 29th Street, Dauphin Street, and 33rd Street; to all lots in the area bounded by Dauphin Street, 29th Street, Norris Street, and 33rd Street; and to all lots in the area bounded by Norris Street, 29th Street, Sedgley Avenue, Montgomery Avenue, Conrail Right-Of-Way, Oxford Street, and 33rd Street.

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