Councilman Johnson introduces bill to stop Bart Blatstein’s proposed Broad and Washington development

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson has listened to the critics and he’s doing something about it.

Not his critics, though: Bart Blatstein’s, who have lambasted the real estate developer’s plans for a massive mixed-use project featuring a walk up, rooftop retail promenade on Broad Street and Washington Avenue. Johnson introduced a bill to place a one-year moratorium on building anything at the site located on the northeast corner of the Broad Street and Washington Avenue intersection.

Neighbors hate the proposed 32-story apartment tower’s long shadows and the idea of added traffic from 1000 apartments and bix box retailers; urbanists, advocates for good design, the Civic Design Review Committee, and the Inquirer’s Inga Saffron have all excoriated the proposal’s enervating, monolithic street level facades, and it’s 600-space above-ground parking garage.

“The community is unanimously opposed so we want more time for the community to have some level of input before any decisions are made on moving forward on the project,” said Johnson, citing the tower’s height and the perceived dearth of parking for the neighborly opprobrium.

The bill comes after the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) first delayed a vote on Blatstein’s request for a zoning special exception on the property, then voted to approve it a week early, then immediately changed its mind and vacated the approval.* While the property is zoned CMX-5, which permits the city’s highest-density commercial and mixed-use towers, Blatstein wants permission to build an above ground parking structure, requiring a special exception, rather than a by-right below-ground structure.*

While everyone besides Blatstein seems to dislike the proposal, critics split on the issue of parking. Many neighbors want more parking, whereas the designer critics want less.

The proposal’s opponents will see Johnson’s bill, should it pass, as righting the wrongs of Blatstein’s deaf ear to measured criticism and the ZBA’s anticipated acquiescence to the specia exception request.  

But while the bill’s substance may please these critics, it should also raise procedural qualms: Philadelphia passed a new zoning code in 2011 in part to reduce the amount of Council meddling in individual development proposals. Might this be a return to the old way of doing business?

Johnson dismissed that concern. “Our process right now is just pumping the breaks,” he said. “We want to work in partnership with the community and the developer so it’s a win-win for everyone.”

Last year Johnson introduced a bill which would have allowed Blatstein’s proposal to proceed, but did not schedule it for a vote because of neighborhood opposition.

Johnson also introduced a bill today to transfer 53 properties in the 2nd District to the Philadelphia Land Bank. Johnson has transferred more than 200 properties to the Land Bank so far.

*CORRECTION: This paragraph originally said Blatstein was seeking a variance. He is not. He is only seeking a special exception for the property. The threshold for granting a special exception is lower than a variance. Special exceptions are supposed to be granted unless there is a specific reason to deny them, such as impairing light or air to adjacent properties or burdening public facilities. Variances are supposed to be denied unless doing so would create an “unncessary hardship” and provided no specific reason for denial, like impairing light to adjacent properties, exist. PlanPhilly regrets the error.

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