Fears of displacement are fueling a fight against the redevelopment of an old strip mall

The renovation of the shopping center, part of a larger South Quarter Crossing project that will also encompass Quartermaster Plaza, is slated to break ground in early 2020.

An artist's rendering of the redevelopment proposed for South Philadelphia Shopping Center at 23rd Street and Oregon Avenue. (Courtesy of Cedar Realty Trust)

An artist's rendering of the redevelopment proposed for South Philadelphia Shopping Center at 23rd Street and Oregon Avenue. (Courtesy of Cedar Realty Trust)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

New York developer Cedar Realty Trust is partnering with Philadelphia’s Alterra Property Group to remake a suburban-style strip mall on 23rd Street and Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia, with 260 apartments, double the retail offerings, and more pedestrian-friendly design.

The proposed renovation of South Philadelphia Shopping Center — part of a larger South Quarter Crossing project that will also encompass Quartermaster Plaza, a big box mall across the street — is slated to break ground in early 2020.

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Already, it’s won support from near neighbors and City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson. But this week, at a meeting of the Philadelphia Planning Commission and a City Council Rules Committee, the seemingly non-controversial shopping plaza modernization sparked a fiery debate over gentrification, displacement, and who gets a voice in decisions about development.

Inciting the conversation was a zoning bill introduced by Johnson to remap the area between Passyunk Avenue and Oregon Avenue, 24th Street and 22nd Street, to allow commercial mixed-use development, like that envisioned by the South Quarter Crossing Plan.

Many neighbors welcome the change, which, in addition to fixing up the aging mall, could usher in more walkable development, encouraging increased connectivity between thriving East Passyunk and areas farther west.

“This is our shopping center it always has been, but right now it looks like a bomb hit it,” said Jody Della Barba, president of Girard Estates Area Residents (GEAR), a group representing homeowners in the well-tended enclave of large 1920s twins east of the plaza. “We have empty stores. It’s dangerous. Behind the post office, people have sex, they do drugs … If you are opposing this, you are hurting our community and hurting the taxpayers.”

But groups from Point Breeze and one from Girard Estates said the project will cause rents to rise in the area and push out longtime residents. They said that Johnson never gave notice about the remapping legislation. The map change allows the developer to avoid a trip to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which would require more community engagement.

“We feel this property is going to be a problem and will cause a ripple effect, tripling rents from Passyunk all the way back to Snyder,” Tiffany Green, president of Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, said. “When they build it, you are going to have poor people [displaced]. That right there is high-end New York-style. That’s the way it looks to us.”

Green and her allies accused the development team and their zoning lawyer, Ron Patterson, of excluding African-American community groups. Green said that a recent meeting at 16th and Porter was too far away from neighborhood residents who live in Point Breeze and Grays Ferry, which are majority African American areas.

“We were not allowed to have any meetings, but I do understand you had a meeting with the Italians at 16th and Porter,” said Lavern Johnson, who travels from her home north of Washington Avenue to shop at the mall, said at Wednesday’s Rules Committee hearing. “We totally reject being totally disrespected like that.”

Johnson responded to critics on Wednesday by saying that his office always deals with the community group that is in closest proximity to a development site.

“I shop on a regular basis at the Target on Columbus Boulevard, but I don’t go to Mark Squilla’s RCO meetings to provide input on what’s being built on Columbus Boulevard,” Johnson said.  

‘Naturally occurring affordable housing’

Many of the same tenants now at the shopping center will return after the redevelopment, Leo Addimando of the Alterra Property Group said.

Addimando said the ShopRite grocery store on site now would get a full renovation and the LA Fitness would move to a larger space in the development. Ross Dress For Less, Modell’s Sporting Goods, Rainbow, and Dunkin Donuts will stick around too, he said. These existing retailers will be joined by another discount retailer and a 40,000 square foot general merchandise store that has “opened a few stores in town recently.”

The developer hinted that the new anchor will be a Target, which also opened at another Alterra development, Lincoln Square, at Broad and Washington.

Addimando tried to assuage concerns about gentrification by describing the project as “naturally occurring affordable housing.”  

He said the rents will run $500 to $1,000 less than those at Lincoln Square with studios renting at a starting rate of $750 and one-bedrooms starting at $1,200.  

“There is a story out there that this is a luxury condo development,” Addimando said. “The starting rents [for the rental units] will be at $750. Does that sound like luxury condos? This will still be a neighborhood shopping center.”

Addimando told PlanPhilly that the residential component of the project will be built out in two phases, with two buildings of 130-to-140 units, including studios, one-bedrooms, two-bedrooms, and three-bedroom units. The developer doesn’t plan to use zoning bonuses or affordability incentives he said.

A community benefits agreement signed with GEAR guarantees one parking space per apartment and design characteristics that compliment the surrounding neighborhood, among other small tweaks.   

The Planning Commission’s staff present bills to the board itself and offer recommendations on how they should vote. In this case, they said the commission should not vote in favor of Johnson’s legislation.

“While new development and mixed-use opportunities can be very exciting changes to come to a neighborhood, they also present very real negative impacts on existing neighbors,” said Ayse Unver, the city planner for Lower South Philadelphia. “Large-scale commercial redevelopment can lead to displacement due to rising housing prices.”

Unver argued that the project should receive more community feedback and go to the ZBA, instead of relying on Councilman Johnson to change the zoning maps.

But the Planning Commission voted 5-to-2 in favor the bill, sparking a burst of outrage from the Point Breeze activists. As the officials tried to move on to consideration of the next bill, Green and her allies hectored the commission for bypassing their concerns.

“The black community has not been met with at all, and you have no right to exclude us out like that,” said Green. “Girard Estates never shops over there, only the black community… you need more diversity on the Planning Commission because they don’t understand the needs of the minority community.”

Johnson’s bill passed through City Council’s Rules Committee hearing Wednesday. It is expected to move forward at the full City Council meeting next week and could be voted out by the end of next week.

The developers are also awaiting a response from Harrisburg on an application for $8 million in state economic development subsidies.

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