Councilman Johnson says he’ll withdraw bills Korman needs to build 722 apartments in Eastwick

Philadelphia Second District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson is withdrawing two bills that Korman Residential needs to build a 722-unit apartment complex near the airport and the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge in Eastwick, he told jubilant residents Tuesday night.

“The community has spoken and you have spoken loud and clear,” Johnson said at a meeting convened by the Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition. Residents cheered their approval and gave him a standing ovation.

Residents oppose the  development because they believe it will exacerbate flooding problems in the area. Korman representatives have told city council committees that it would not – that it would have to improve runoff conditions to get building permits because of Philadelphia Water Department regulations. Water Department officials have said they would not give permits unless this condition was met. But that was not enough for Eastwick residents, who maintained that it made no sense to put about 1,000 more residents into a flood plane.

Johnson told the residents that they deserve a say in what happens in their community, and he was wrong to introduce the legislation for the project without their support. 

Any council member could re-introduce the legislation, but that would be a violation of the councilmatic privilege tradition that city council almost always observes. An at-large member of council would also discuss such an action with Johnson, and not go forward without his agreement he said. 

Johnson spoke of his decision after the meeting

Korman could still build on the property, but existing zoning allows for single-family housing only, not apartments.  Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition President Terrance “TJ” Johnson said he’d be willing to discuss such a proposal with Korman. He doesn’t think a single-family housing development would be as dense, so water would have more places to run-off, he said.

Reaction from Eastwick Friends & Neighbors President Terrance “TJ” Johnson
Korman attorney Peter Kelsen could not be reached for comment immediately following the evening meeting. But in previous interviews, he has said that Korman could actually build more densely under the existing zoning than they want to build under the change. 

The project began under the old zoning code. “The way we’ve laid out the proposed development site really maximizes open space – there is less than 25 percent building coverage,” he said this past spring. “Contrast that with R9A – that could be 80 percent building coverage.”

Korman has held development rights on the 23 acres where the apartment complex would be built, and an additional 93 acres, for decades.  All that land is owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. 

Korman was willing to give up its rights on the 93 acres as part of a settlement to a lawsuit filed by Korman over the amount of money the city paid to condemn another parcel of land for airport use as an employee parking lot.

Under the settlement agreement, Korman would surrender its rights on the 93 acres and the zoning would be changed on the 23 acres. The PRA would then transfer the 93 acres to the airport for future use.

Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia Attorney Amy Laura Cahn, who is working with the Eastwick Residents, said the settlement expires at the end of the year.

Johnson said it will be up to the city and Korman to work something out.

Attorney Amy Laura Cahn on Johnson’s decision

The Friends & Neighbors meeting wasn’t just about Johnson – although it was his announcement that brought the house down.

Joanne Dahme, public affairs manager for the Philadelphia Water Department, reported on the final results of the flooding survey that went out to Eastwick residents. About 5,800 surveys went out, and 292 received. Of those, 133 reported flooding at their homes, Dahme said.

She reported that most of the severe flooding happens when Cobbs Creek overflows its banks, and gave an update on talks between the city, Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection agency about a berm, flood gates, or other possible solution. The process to determine which solution or solutions is right and make sure said solution won’t pass flooding troubles on to another community will take about a year, she said.

The Water Department’s Joanne Dahme reports on resident surveys and department efforts to address Eastwick flooding.

Dahme explained why the process would take so long, and apologetically said it could be done no other way. But that did not appease many residents, who said that Eastwick has been waiting for solutions for many, many years.

“What I’m hearing is you are going to do a long-term study, nothing about what we are going to do now to protect our homes,” said Thomas Casey, who lives on Saturn Place – one of the most flood-prone areas.

Dahme did discuss some immediate actions the water department is taking. She said the surveys have shown that some flooding is happening because there are not enough places for run-off rainwater to enter the storm sewers. More are going to be added, she said.

The rest of Dahme’s presentation, plus those of Emergency Management Director Samantha Phillips and L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams.

Attendees also heard from Office of Emergency Management Director Samantha Phillips, who announced a new city program where citizens will be trained as leaders in case of emergency. They will learn things like the proper use of sandbags and how to help people who may need extra assistance, Phillips said. The first pilot will be in Eastwick.

Licenses & Inspections Commissioner Carlton Williams also spoke to residents about what do to if the actions of a neighboring property owner were sending extra water onto their property – call his office, and they will help.  The discussion here went off in many directions, as residents have long-standing concerns about abandoned and bank-owned properties.

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