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Mayor Kenney vetoes Society Hill height limit

An aerial view of Society Hill.

An aerial view of Society Hill. (Kimberly Paynter/ WHYY)

Mayor Jim Kenney has once again vetoed a controversial zoning bill that sought to create a height ceiling in Philadelphia’s affluent Society Hill neighborhood.

The legislation, which passed unanimously earlier this month, would have limited development would have limited development along a stretch of Walnut Street to just 65 feet, or about six stories, while increasing parking requirements and eliminating zoning bonuses tied to historic preservation. The legislation came after a fracas over an equally controversial proposal to construct a hotel tower in the area  and triggered a spate between neighbors, historic preservationists and advocates for housing density.

This was the mayor’s first explicit veto of City Council legislation.

In a letter from Kenney to the Society Hill Civic Association, obtained by PlanPhilly, the mayor appears to side with housing supply advocates.

“Restricting overall development in Society Hill, the overlay will limit the supply of units necessary to meet housing demand,” Kenney said. “This will likely place undue pressure on surrounding communities to meet that demand, in turn driving housing prices higher and potentially displacing low-, moderate- and middle-income residents.”

It was not the first such go round — a previous height ban for Society Hill introduced by City Councilmember Mark Squilla was pocket vetoed by Kenney at the end of his first term. But the councilmember, whose district encompasses the neighborhood, reintroduced a similar zoning overlay in January after developers sought to place a 16-floor building at the corner of 3rd and Walnut streets, across from the Merchants’ Exchange Building, a National Historic Landmark.

Although this project would sit a stone’s throw from the iconic, 309-foot I.M. Pei-designed Society Hill Towers, the hotel proposal drew backlash from nearby residents that argued more tall buildings would dwarf the Merchant’s Exchange and destroy the character of the neighborhood. Like Old City, Society Hill includes many buildings that date back to the colonial era, as well as many 20th century urban renewal-era structures built to fit in with the historic buildings.

Although the contested hotel project was eventually scaled to seven stories, civic groups pushed for a height ban, pointing to similar restrictions in Old City, Washington, D.C. and historic sections of Boston.

The city’s Planning Commission and other groups argued the limits were a form of “exclusionary zoning” and would restrict housing supply in a tiny neighborhood that is whiter and wealthier than most in Philadelphia.

In a response, SHCA President Larry Spector pledged to overturn the mayor’s latest decision –– under the terms of the City Charter, City Council can override mayoral vetoes with a two-thirds majority vote.

“We are in complete disagreement with the mayor and we will make every effort to override the veto. This is a World Heritage City and we should act like a World Heritage City,” Spector said.

Spector wrote in a letter sent to the mayor that his group does “not oppose development” or affordable housing and aims only to protect the Merchants’ Exchange building and the historic fabric of the neighborhood.

“What we want is good development consistent with the goal of historic preservation,” Spector wrote.

“The bills do not prevent development of affordable or mixed-income housing,” Spector added. “The recent Historical Commission vote in favor of a luxury hotel proposed for the corner of 3rd and Walnut shows the lack of a 65-foot height limit on that block will result in anything but affordable housing.”

Squilla said Wednesday evening that he agreed with his constituent and would challenge Kenney’s veto.

“The height restrictions being placed by this bill are very strategic and limited, and are supported by both the National Park Service and the Preservation Alliance,” he said.

“Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, many of which have zoning overlays to protect their unique characteristics. I support Society Hill with their overlay which seeks to balance historic preservation with the needs of future development and affordability.”

Editor’s Note: This article was updated after initial publication with comment from Mark Squilla and comments from Larry Spector’s letter.

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