As Lower Lancaster Avenue is surrounded with bigger, denser development the corridor itself is poised to become a stronger more vibrant place. But one of the most intact blocks, which supports a mix of ground-floor retail with apartments above, is threatened by demolition. Community Contributor George Poulin, an architect who chairs the Powelton Village Civic Association’s zoning committee, lays out the problem and the case for the preservaiton of the 3600 block of Lancaster Avenue. The historical commission will consider the designation of this block at a meeting on September 16.
University City has undoubtedly become a hotbed of economic development within the Philadelphia region. A recent report by global real estate services firm CBRE pronounced that University City is one of the hottest tech markets in the nation, and in 2014 the University City District reported that 82% of all of the office construction in the entire region was taking place in University City. As a resident of Powelton Village, which immediately abuts Drexel University and the University City Science Center, it has been thrilling to watch this part of the city grow and transform. Prospects of an Amtrak rail yard overbuild and Drexel University’s Innovation Neighborhood mean the most exciting developments are yet to come.
Indeed, it is not just the residents who have taken notice. Speculators, wanting to cash in on the excitement, have made an increasing presence in the University City real estate world. University City is no stranger to the turmoil of a frenzied real estate market, having witnessed rapid expansion, massive disinvestment, and then a new urban rediscovery over the course of a single lifetime. But this time around, the pace of development seems particularly frenetic. Neighborhoods once prized for their historic architecture, spacious lots, and green streetscapes are now seen as being ripe for redevelopment. Teardowns have become a daily way of life for those living in Powelton Village, West Powelton, and Mantua.
This past April things came to a head when neighbors in Powelton Village learned that the entire south side of the 3600 block of Lancaster Avenue could be razed. An entire block, fully occupied, being demolished? The thought seemed laughable. The 3600 block of Lancaster is a wonderfully intact composition of Victorian storefront mixed-use buildings. First floors consisting of neighborhood-oriented retail with market rate residential apartments above. Isn’t that the urban ideal? With a zoning of CMX-2 (with a height capped at 38’), this block hardly seems like the most logical choice for redevelopment. Therein lies the problem.
As it turns out, CMX-2 zoning is particularly lucrative for developers wanting to build student housing. The 38’ height limit allows for four stories, not three, and detached structures do not have any requirement for ground floor retail. This means that despite occupying a full city block, as one taxable OPA account, a new development would not be required to include retail storefronts, essentially killing the viability of Lancaster Avenue as a commercial corridor. Without the inconveniences of architectural detailing or landscaped setbacks, developers can cram a lot of units into relatively efficient floor plates.
The Powelton Village Civic Association, realizing the gravity of the situation, swiftly jumped to action by nominating a portion of the block to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Simultaneously, the City of Philadelphia acted similarly with its own nomination. Demolition aside, the block is clearly worthy of addition to the Historic Register. In 1987 the entire block was restored to Secretary of the Interior Standards using federal rehabilitation tax credits and today, the block stands as one of the most intact Victorian streetscapes in all of Philadelphia. A designation hearing for these properties will take place on September 16.
As a volunteer chairing the Zoning Committee of the Powelton Village Civic Association, it is hard not to be frustrated by this situation. As an architect, the total disregard for the urban experience and built environment can be equally discouraging. Lancaster Avenue and Powelton Village have so much going for it, and with the collective attention of organizations such as the PEC, Lancaster Avenue 21st Century Business Association, and University City District, it seems appalling to think that an entire block of commercial activity can be wiped out with a simple over-the-counter permit.
There are reasons to be optimistic about the future of Lancaster Avenue. Drexel University, through its development partner American Campus Communities, has anchored the corner of 34th and Lancaster Avenue with eight new retail storefronts. Behind 3600 Lancaster, planning is underway for a new University-supported public K-8 Elementary School in partnership with the Science Leadership Academy that will help stabilize Powelton’s homeownership rate. Furthermore, Wexford Science & Technology is in the process of redeveloping the 3700 block of Lancaster into a vibrant mixed-use community. Wexford’s reintroduction of the street grid will undo the damage caused by the superblock housing the former University City High School. Existing businesses and residents along Lower Lancaster Avenue stand to benefit tremendously from this new development. How ironic that all this change for the better is precisely what makes the 3600 block of Lancaster so vulnerable to begin with.
Now what can be done to prevent future intact blocks from having their day with the wrecking ball? For one, the zoning code shouldn’t be used as a tool for demolition of blocks that contribute to the urban fabric and economic vitality of our city. Unreasonable purchase prices also should not be seen as justification for equally unreasonable zoning variances. Second, we need to have a real conversation about design standards in Philadelphia. We can and should do better if we want to become the world-class city that we so desperately aspire to be. Lastly, our elected officials need to uphold their end of the bargain by working with neighborhood organizations to re-map parcels that may carry outdated zoning designations and to implement tools such as Neighborhood Conservation Districts, which seek to protect the elements of neighborhoods that make them so special to begin with.
University City may be the economic engine behind Philadelphia’s growth, but it is also a gem of historic architecture. To realize Philadelphia’s true potential, the economic success of our city cannot come at the expense of real, functioning neighborhoods.