Lower North Plan recommends gentrification impact study, speedier transit, protection of single-family blocks

The image above, taken from the Lower North PCPC presentation, shows proposed changes west of Broad Street. See more maps and other images within the full presentation, included beneath this article.

The new comprehensive plan for Lower North Philadelphia – the part of town roughly between Lehigh and Poplar streets, the Schuylkill River and the Market-Frankford El – calls for a study on potential gentrification.

The district-level plan, adopted by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission at its recent May meeting, recommends commissioning “a study of what impact, if any, rising home values have had, or may have, on renters and homeowners,” planner and Lower North plan team member Octavia Howell told commissioners before the vote.

Funding for such a study has not been secured yet, but examining the issue is high on the priority list of Lower North Plan manager David Fecteau.

The plan focuses on 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.

The district has lost significant population since its peak, and has a large amount of vacant buildings and land. But there is development pressure in some of those neighborhoods, and resident concern over keeping housing affordable for current residents was a frequent topic at planning meetings.

Lower North is one of 18 district-level plans that eventually will be part of the city-wide comprehensive plan, Philadelphia2035. The draft plan, summaries of community input sessions, and much other information about Lower North is available here at the Philadelphia2035 website. Howell’s presentation focused on changes made since the draft was presented to the commission. The final plan will be on line later this month.

The plan recommends taking steps to protect homeownership and making public investments in blocks that have little vacant property.

In some places west of Broad Street, it recommends down-zoning residential blocks to single-family only. Current zoning allows both single- and multi-family, Howell said, and that “makes it easier for blocks to be degraded.”

Zoning changes would be made near Temple University to allow higher density development along Broad Street.

Mixed-income residential will be encouraged.

On the commercial side, The Lower North plan recommends focusing city investment in commercial corridors where private commercial investment is happening or imminent. The city should continue to invest in things like street cleaning and lighting, and providing technical assistance to business owners, around Broad and Lehigh, Cecil B. Moore and Girard avenues, for example, Howell said.

The plan adds a new commercial area for these efforts, centered around Broad Street and Susquehanna Avenue.

The one plan recommendation that garnered public comment recommends encouraging larger retail establishments, like supermarkets, along a section of Ridge Avenue between Girard and Cecil B. Moore.

Republican Ward Leader Adam Lang, who is also on the Brewerytown Civic, wondered why that was preferable to “rebuilding the historic commercial corridor.”

Fecteau said that along that corridor, “quite unfortunately, we are not seeing the population gains we would hope to see in that area.” Fecteau called the changes an “acknowledgement that traditional, small-footprint retail is not going to be coming back.”

Both Lang and blogger Gabriel Gottlieb said they think taking that part of Ridge that way would be a mistake, as population growth is likely in the future, and the bigger-boxes could not easily be undone. “You’re not anticipating enough of the future,” Gotlieb said.

Fecteau said the consensus of the team, based in part on conversations with potential retail tenants and population trends, is that either zoning needs to be changed to allow more flexibility or parcels needed to be consolidated for larger-format stores.

One of the district strengths highlighted by city planners and residents alike is the network of public transit that ties the district to Center City. But the connections could be faster, Howell said.

“Lower North is very well connected to transit, with the Broad Street Line, the Frankford El, trolley and bus routes, but there are interventions we could make to improve the speed of those routes,” she said. A dedicated bus line, signal adjustments and improvements to the trolley fleet are all suggested. “We are also recommending improvements to bicycle infrastructure,” she said.

The plan prioritizes the Girard and North Philadelphia Broad Street Line SEPTA stations and the Girard Market-Frankford El stations for improvements, which it says should include ADA accessibility upgrades, public art, bicycle parking and storage, landscape and streetscape improvements, lighting and signage. All of this would complement proposed TOD development, Howell told the board.

The plan calls for construction of a new Martin Luther King older adult center at 21st Street and Cecil B. Moore Ave., an initiative that has support from city council and also local seniors. And it recommends improvements to the public facilities at Cecil B. Moore (aka Connie Mack) Recreation Center and Waterloo Playground.

To help preserve the neighborhoods’ history, a number of properties will be nominated for placement on the Philadelphia Register of Historic places. There are many worthy places, Howell said, but these are the ones determined to get first priority: The Pyramid Club; Teatro Puerto Rico, aka the Diamond Theater; Church of the GESU; Poth Brewery, the townhomes at 1416-32 W. Girard Avenue; The Legendary Blue Horizon; and Berean Presbyterian Church

The plan now recommends maintaining industrial or industrial/commercial mixed use zoning on American Street and some areas to the east and west, from Master Street to Lehigh Avenue.

But Howell said that vacant industrial parcels off of Master Street would be allowed to transition to other uses.

There is also a recommendation to explore the creation of a zoning overlay for site design, building design and use within this area. Before that happens, the plan calls for a review of current land use and existing activity with the neighborhood associations.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal