West Mount Airy has changed in many ways since I moved there 30 years ago. Neighbors and businesses have come and gone. Schools have opened and closed and, of course, some new homes have been constructed. Not everything has always suited everyone’s liking but the overall feeling of the community has remained consistent.
But recently it has begun to feel like someone, somewhere in Center City, decided that the neighborhood needs to look more like Center City. That we do not have sufficient “density” and should be creating more living spaces for more people. It’s a viewpoint with momentum behind it.
A short walk from my home, at the corner of McCallum and West Hortter Streets, at the site of the old Joa Mart Market, permits have been posted for a five-story apartment building with roof decks. The building is close to 520 Carpenter, another recently built development with pricy condos, and not far from several other new projects, all of them priced out of the reach of the average Mount Airy resident.
The structure going up on McCallum and West Hortter will rise on a very small parcel, only 10,000 square feet, and will be built right up to the edge of the sidewalk — there is no room for the setback from the street that is standard in the area.
Anyone who knows this community knows that there are many multi-family buildings here. Within walking distance from this proposed construction there are probably five to seven apartment or condo buildings. Yet all of these developments, many built 50 to 100 years ago, include green space and allow for a sense of spaciousness. They offer breathing room not seen in this latest crop of developments and are home to a diverse collection of families. We are a multigenerational community with people of all ages with all kinds of accessibility needs.
To me, the development happening now feels like it wasn’t conceived with the full gamut of Mount Airy residents in mind. People tend to move here because they are looking for a suburban feeling, not an urban one. They want yards, trees, flowers, and the ability to see more sun and sky than is possible when you are in many neighborhoods in this city. They want places where their children can safely walk to school. And despite what some people may hope, the majority of people that live in this community own and use their cars. Some of them need cars because of mobility challenges or health concerns. If Center City planners and developers want that to change, more work must be done to make transit fully accessible and functional before the roof decks start rising.
Right now, it’s hard for Mount Airy residents to rely on transit because although SEPTA is nearby, it is rarely convenient. It doesn’t get you to many areas of the city unless you are willing to spend an hour or two waiting and riding on a bus and hoping that the line gets you somewhere close to where you want to go. The problems multiply for people who can’t walk up stairs easily. With crime rates spiking, many of the seniors and vulnerable people who live in our community are also experiencing increased safety concerns.
Despite this significant infrastructure challenge, Mount Airy has become a desirable place to buy homes, build homes and do business. That’s because people like me and my neighbors have invested our tax dollars and energy. We have maintained our homes and worked with our local civic group, West Mount Airy Neighbors. Now we are asking for support in maintaining that diversity, affordability, and community that we have cultivated. We are asking for responsible development that comes with green space, opportunities for inclusion, and respect for the neighbors who have made this community what it is.
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