Francisville downzoning objections come to Council too late

The public comment period near the end of each City Council session is rarely a forum for reasoned criticisms of pending legislation. If a critic enjoys the clout or the know-how, they’ll talk to the relevant councilperson about their concerns behind closed doors or at least at the committee hearing.

Thursday’s comment period opened with an evocation of “the old testament prophet Isaiah” as a prelude to a call for the socialization of the Philadelphia Art Museum and its conversion to housing for the homeless. After that one of the perennial gadflies of the chamber stepped up to demand that all of the council people be jailed.

But then developer Rahil Raza approached the microphone in a sharp suit. Instead of hectoring the gathered council members, he politely asked them to reconsider a bill that would rezone much of the area bounded North Broad Street, Girard Avenue, Ridge Avenue, and Cecil B. Moore.

Council President Darrell Clarke represents this Francisville community, and it lies to the southwest of the heart of Temple University’s holdings and just above the Fairmount neighborhood. Like many of the city’s older rowhouse neighborhoods it was zoned RM-1 in the 1950s, a designation that allows for small multi-family dwellings. At the time, the city’s population stood at 2.1 million and planners anticipated further growth and zoned accordingly.

Instead, the city’s population fell by 600,000 residents in the intervening years and the single-family rowhouse neighborhoods were preserved from multi-family buildings, if not from blight.

Now with the city population growing again and new development reaching many Center City-adjacent neighborhoods, the old RM-1 zoning is finally getting some use.

But many current residents aren’t happy about that. They would like their neighborhoods to remain single-family residential areas. Clarke’s remapping bill would respect that wish by rezoning the area RSA-5, the typical designation for rowhouse neighborhoods.

“Before we had to manage decline, now we are in a position to manage growth,” Clarke told PlanPhilly after the council session ended. “I think these people were trying to do something in Francisville. If you look at that neighborhood, its history, that was a very stable single residential area. Now it’s morphing significantly and a lot of the residents are uncomfortable with that.”

At the public comment period, Raza and his supporters argued that this downzoning would cast a pall over development in the area.

“The life that is being brought into many of these Philadelphia neighborhoods, along with resources and energy…would be devastated by passing this bill,” said Raza. “Downzoning would drastically reduce foot traffic and economic opportunity. We know that diversity in housing is essential to community, and housing of multiple price points and sizes helps to protect and secure diversity.”

Raza positioned himself first as a bona fide Philadelphian, born and raised, then as a developer of middle-income housing of the type more affordable to first time buyers and the lower middle class. Real estate agent Tavis Scales spoke against the bill too as did Felicia Middleton, who is designing a coffee shop that she fears will be negatively affected by the downzoning.

“I’ve worked with a lot of business owners unaware of changes in the zoning code, honestly they are really not aware of the zoning code at all,” said Middleton. “I see a lot of minority business owners, immigrant business owners who purchase these buildings and are unfamiliar with the nuances of the code. Then they have to go through the variance process and that becomes a financial burden.”

But these testimonials were the very definition of too little, too late. Clarke’s bill got introduced back in January, hearings were held on April 3, and the bill got a favorable vote on its first reading on April 6. The bill passed council unanimously today along with many other zoning bills.

Clarke said his office hadn’t heard from Raza and his supporters before this public comment and that these concerns hadn’t been expressed at the hearing or the previous council session.

“If there needed to be additional amendments crafted, that is the type of issue that should have been raised at the public hearing,” said Clarke.

The Council President said developers could choose to build denser mixed-use buildings on the neighborhood’s commercial corridors. And if the developer faces a genuine hardship they can head to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, request a variance, and make their case.

“The zoning board can and does significantly grant variances so they can build whatever they want to build,” said Clarke.

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