Could a driveway kill the Italian Market?

A rendering of Midwood's proposed Italian Market apartment building as soon from Washington Avenue and Ninth Street looking east. (BLT Architects)

A rendering of Midwood's proposed Italian Market apartment building as soon from Washington Avenue and Ninth Street looking east. (BLT Architects)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

The entrance to an underground parking garage has become the latest flashpoint in a fiery battle over the future of the Italian Market.

A crowd of South Philadelphia residents waited hours on Tuesday to testify against the driveway, which would come as part of a six-story apartment building planned for the corner of 9th Street and Washington Avenue at the southeast corner of the historic outdoor food market.

The apartment building proposed by the Midwood Investment and Development company would bring 157 rentals, replacing a vacant lot and Anastasi Seafood, a neighborhood mainstay that is relocating.

As part of the developers’ plan to provide parking, project architects designed an underground garage with an exit onto 9th street, including curb cuts that neighbors say would disrupt the market’s pedestrian-friendly nature and make it hard to close the market to automobile traffic on weekends.

“Breaking up 9th Street with a curb cut [ in] the only open air market in the entire city forecloses opportunities for the increased vitality of the market,” said Andrew Stober, vice-president of the Passyunk Square Civic Association at Tuesday’s Civic Design Review (CDR) hearing. “It’d be hard to imagine closing the market for only pedestrian traffic on Saturdays if you have a garage entrance here.”

One of the oldest public food markets in the United States, the Italian Market has found itself under increasing pressure as the surrounding neighborhoods gentrify, bringing tax increases, complaints about cleanliness, and other quality of life concerns. Some market business owners want to create a Business Improvement District (BID) to support the market as it strives to meet changing demands from neighbors. BID supporters say the organization could be a way to help businesses remain viable at a time when rising property value could tempt property owners to follow neighborhood trends towards high-end residential development like the Midwood building.

Almost every community member who testified at the CDR hearing spoke about the need to protect the market from disappearing.

Stober cited a petition started Monday night that had already gathered almost 400 signatures denouncing ”driveways in the Italian Market.” He said that the neighborhood feared future developers would demand curb cuts on 9th as well, carving up the streetscape of the Philadelphia fixture.

Stober also argued that it didn’t make any sense from the perspective of drivers trying to reach the garage either.

Most traffic would be coming from the north, but traffic on 9th Street goes only one way: north. Those attempting to access the parking spaces from Washington Avenue would have to drive down to Wharton Street and then cut up through the notoriously congested intersection where a mass of customers is perpetually clustered around rival cheesesteak impresarios Pat’s and Geno’s.

“I’ll do the math for you: it’s an extra half mile of driving … We are talking about thousands of additional vehicle miles travelled a year,” said Stober. “We have a mayor and a planning commission who have committed themselves to reducing vehicle use in the city and they are making a policy decision that is driving more vehicle use.”

Midwood’s zoning lawyer, Blank Rome’s Peter Kelsen, protested that the developer did not choose the site of the curb cuts but instead had it foisted upon the project by the Planning Commission and the Streets Department. He said the origins of the choice date back to meetings with Alan Greenberger, head of the city’s planning and development agencies under the Nutter administration.

Stober and his allies acknowledged that the developer has sunk a lot of costs into designing the building to accommodate the 9th Street garage entrance, but they said that the city’s reasons for wanting the entrance on the side street were baffling. The only reasoning they’d ever heard related to the preservation of the unprotected bike lane on Washington Avenue.

CDR member Leo Addimando questioned Midwood about whether they would have put the entrance on 9th if they had not been directed to do so by the city. Kelsen said only that they would have looked at the option closely.

“If planning and streets say it should be on 9th, then I think we should focus on what it looks like aesthetically,” said Addimando, who is also the managing partner with the Alterra Property Group, which developed the nearby Lincoln Square housing and retail project on Broad and Washington. “The idea that the scale of the building doesn’t make sense is bollocks, it’s a nice looking building.”

The only argument against the building’s size — it is six stories tall — came from two public commenters who do not live in the neighborhood. Neighbors protested last October when a prior iteration of the plan showed 182 units in eight stories. The earliest plans from 2015 showed less than 80 units.

Stober said that a poll of Passyunk Civic’s membership showed that an overwhelming majority favored allowing the building two more stories if it would build its garage entrance on Washington Avenue.

The only other major aesthetic critiqued was reserved for the awning proposed for the 15,500 square feet of retail included in the project.

“I’ve never used the word hate on this committee, but I hate how grey and dark they are,” said Ashley DiCaro, an urban designer with Interface Studio who sits on the CDR committee.

Kelsen said that Midwood appreciated that critique and would revise plans for the awnings.

The board voted to require Midwood to attend another Civic Design Review hearing, which is the only power the advisory board enjoys. A recent report written by the Planning Commission found that developers ignore the committee’s recommendations a majority of the time.

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