City Council passes bill allowing bigger development near the Ben Franklin Bridge

Developers can build bigger, denser buildings near the Ben Franklin Bridge than in other parts of Old City under a zoning bill city council passed Thursday.

Bill No. 130255-A, introduced by First City Councilman Mark Squilla, makes developments in CMX-3 lots near the bridge eligible for Floor Area bonuses, states they may occupy 100% of the lot area, and requires no side yards.

“This legislation enables private development close to the bridge embankment that would increase the density of Old City to help support the ever-growing retail and restaurant industry,” Squilla said in an email after the vote. “This would also bring people closer to the developing waterfront.”

The bill was drafted in response to a 16-story, 128-unit mixed-used apartment complex proposed for 205 Race Street by developer Brown Hill.

Some members of the now-defunct Old City Civic Association opposed the scale of the building, as did Keystone Outdoor Advertising, which owns a billboard across the street from the site.

The developer had filed for six variances under the old zoning code. It would have needed two variances under the new code. An application for zoning relief was withdrawn just before a scheduled zoning board hearing earlier this year.

Squilla told PlanPhilly previously that it made more sense to handle the matter legislatively rather than have the developer start the zoning process over under the new code.

The eased size restrictions apply within the borders of I-95, Race Street, New Street and 3rd Street.

The original proposal set the western boundary at 4th Street, but city planning suggested the modification partly in response to resident concerns about future overdevelopment, and on June 6, council approved an amendment.

Some critics have said the bill amounts to spot zoning. Old City residents Susan and Rob Kettell are among them.  Susan Kettell said the height and massing restrictions in the Old City Overlay exist in theory to protect the historic feel of the community.  “But why even bother having these zoning restrictions if someone who has a special interest can see something like this pass? It’s pretty outrageous.” she said.

Rob Kettell, who was active with the former Old City Civic Association, said the approach to Philadelphia from the Ben Franklin Bridge now has a beautiful view, but allowing taller buildings could create a cavern-like effect.  He wrote an opinion piece for the Design Advocacy Group that details his concerns, here.

In his role as Philadelphia Planning Commission Chairman, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Commerce Alan Greenberger told planning commissioners that while the bill was created with the Brown Hill project in mind, it responds to real development challenges in the surrounding area posed by the scale of the bridge.

 Within the now-pending ordinance itself, Squilla refers to Race Street’s role as a city-river connector street within the city’s Master Plan for the Central Delaware – a plan he has advocated for. “The Benjamin Franklin Bridge, although architecturally pleasing, provides development challenges in its very near vicinity due to its large size and the constraints it places on visibility in the immediate area,” it states. “…Open space in the near vicinity of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge has less benefit directly adjacent to the bridge given its large size, and … the bridge structure lends balance to taller development directly adjacent to it given its size.”

While the former Old City Civic Association opposed the 205 Race Street proposal, others have praised it, including Old City District. Old City District director Graham Copeland could not be reached for comment Thursday. But at the planning commission meeting where planning approval was given, Copeland said it would bring people and economic development to the area, and agreed with the legislation’s language that it would activate the Race Street corridor to the Delaware River.

Messages left for developer Jeffrey Brown and project attorney Daniel Reisman have not yet been returned. If they are, PlanPhilly will update this story.

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