Lower North District Plan progresses, support for community pledged

Residents of Lower North Philadelphia have already told city planners the Lower North District-level Comprehensive Plan should support current homeowners.

“We’ve heard what you said,” city planner and Lower North project manager David Fecteau told participants at the latest public input session, held earlier this week at the Columbia North YMCA on Broad Street.

Fecteau said the Lower North plan will provide this support by focusing city investments – such as incentives for residential or commercial development, creation of new public open space and green space and targeted code-enforcement “sweeps” – near areas that boast a high-level of homeownership.

At the most recent session, Fecteau and other planners asked residents for input on where these things should happen, and sought advice on refining some preliminary zoning changes and other changes, including some that would:

-Allow former industrial lands on part of American Street to be redeveloped with housing and/or commercial development. “There is already pressure from developers who want to build houses, and from neighborhood organizations that want that to happen,” Fecteau said. But current zoning gets in the way.

-Encourage commercial re-development on city-owned property along a section of Ridge Avenue. Stores would be larger than the typical neighborhood corridor variety, which seem to be no longer viable there. These would not be big-box stores, like a Home Depot – there’s just not enough space, Fecteau said – but something in between. Earlier this month, he gave an example of a grocery store to the planning commission. (The commission also received a run-down of the preliminary recommendations for the plan. Read that here.)

-Keep single family homes from being subdivided into apartments in some areas, including parts of Strawberry Mansion, while allowing without protest multi-family, or apartments, on a clustered group of blocks near Temple University.

See current zoning maps and the preliminary proposed changes in the file called “Preliminary Lower North District Zoning Recommendations,” at the bottom of this article.

The Lower North District Comprehensive Plan, which will be one of 18 district-level portions of the city’s new land use strategy, covers the neighborhoods of North Philadelphia, North Central, Norris Square, Olde Kensington, South Kensington, West Kensington, Yorktown, Ludlow, Brewerytown, Green Hills, Cecil B Moore, Sharswood and Strawberry Mansion.

Eleven of the district’s 18 commercial corridors have a vacancy rate of about 20 percent, Fecteau said. But that rate could be reduced, he said, if the city can determine how to tap into district resident’s unmet shopping needs.

At the earlier sessions this past summer, 20 percent of participants said they shopped in South Philadelphia and the Northeast, but would like to shop more closer to home, in a traditional commercial corridor, provided it was clean and safe.

“The challenge for the city is to figure out what they are shopping for in South Philly and the Northeast, and attract (purveyors of those goods) to come here,” he said.

To help planners focus recommendations for city investment, participants worked in small groups, placing symbols for housing investment, targeted zoning enforcement, community open space, storm water management projects, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Cleaning and Greening of open lots, and parking lots, on large maps. One caveat: They had to be placed in one of seven areas the planners identified as having a large amount of vacant land, a high rate of tax delinquency and a high rate of city ownership of vacant land, while also being near stable blocks of single family homes with high rates of home ownerships and other assets, such as a shopping center. The seven areas also are near community assets, such as shopping centers or recreation centers.

A little explanation on the parking lots: The city is looking to formalize some informal uses that residents have already placed on vacant land, and parking is one of them. Fecteau said the city might sell vacant properties to neighbors or civics to be used as parking spaces.

Participants also got a close look at the preliminary recommendations for the areas along American Street and Ridge Avenue, and the early zoning change recommendations, and were asked to give feedback to planners at each station, or vote using stickers to show which ideas they like.

The results will be reported back in the form of more refined recommendations at the third public input session, which will take place in December, Fecteau said. A draft plan will go to the planning commission in December as well, Fecteau said. It will be available for public comment through February, further refined, and then presented to the commission for adoption.

Sisters Glenda and Ronnie Tate, whose family runs the All In The Family Group non-profit, which is aimed at bettering the Village Community within Strawberry Mansion, enthusiastically asked city planner Laura Spina to put the symbols in or very close to their neighborhood.

“We’re just one big vacant lot,” Ronnie Tate said.

North Philadelphia Resident Hellen McCollum, a retired teacher who is the state director of education for the Elks Club, said the effort reminded her a lot of efforts from 30 years ago. Back then, there were improvements, she said, but the people involved in the Neighborhood Action Committees died, and things fell apart. This time, she hopes change is longer-lasting.

One commercial property McCollum would love to see reborn is the Uptown Theater at 2240 N. Broad. She believes doing so would revitalize that section of Broad Street.

She and her friends would go to a big event around Thanksgiving each year. “For $1.75, I would get admission, popcorn, a drink and Raisinets, and I would get to see 10-15 acts.” Acts like Smokey Robinson, The Clovers and the Clarktones.

There was a short, unplanned Q&A prior to the public input part of the meeting. The planning staff had the YMCA gymnasium for a limited amount of time, and to try to keep things moving, suggested participants ask questions to individual planners while the group got started. But the audience was not having it.

Several people shouted that planning was being disrespectful by not taking questions, and that everyone should hear the questions that were asked. One said, “They are going to tell us to all go away, and then, we all are going to be out of our houses,” said one man.

PlanPhilly has heard similar feelings expressed by other people who live in the area, and who say the city has historically neglected and dis-invested in their neighborhoods and discriminated against the people who live in them. Current planners are trying to build trust, in part through these public meetings.

Planning changed the evening’s plan to take three questions in front of the audience.

Jacqueline Wiggins had a question about proposed legislation Fecteau mentioned through which the city would sell vacant land in some areas at a discounted price. City council passed land bank legislation recently (see previous coverage) and Council President Darrell Clarke introduced a series of bills earlier this year which would also encourage the sale of vacant property.

Wiggins asked who would be able to purchase city-owned properties at a discount. Fecteau repeated what he knew: That within certain areas, the property would be sold at a discount, something less than full value. He said he couldn’t elaborate more, because he didn’t have the bill with him. Two related bills introduced earlier this year are attached at the bottom of this article.

One man  didn’t feel that the public outreach was comprehensive enough. “Why isn’t the city coming and asking us what we want in our neighborhoods?” he asked. (Note: Participants in the first public meeting were asked to make such suggestions, but the rec center where it was held changed the room the planners were assigned to. The room given was very small, crowded and warm, and some attendees found participating difficult, and some left.)

Fecteau asked what he wanted.

He said existing neighborhood businesses should be able to expand and more effectively let people know what they have in their shops so local residents can buy them. And the shopping areas need better lighting, he said. “If you go down to Girard Avenue, you ain’t shopping there when the sun goes down. It’s dark,” he said. Meanwhile, those shopping areas in the Northeast have great lighting, he said.  Fecteau said the Northeast plaza shop owners pay for that lighting, but the city commerce department has done lighting and other commercial corridor improvements in conjunction with business owners in the past, and suggested he talk to a commerce representative who was in attendance.

Anyone who wants to offer additional input on the current thinking for the Lower North Plan can do so by calling, emailing or sending a letter to Fecteau, he said. Here’s his contact information:

David Fecteau, City Planner, Planning Division
Philadelphia City Planning Commission
One Parkway Building
1515 Arch Street, 13th Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19102
tel: (215) 683-4670
fax: (215) 683-4630
e-mail: david.fecteau@phila.gov

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