Mixed-use proposals for Washington Avenue west advance at City Council amid mixed community support

A pair of large, mixed-use developments proposed for the western half of Washington Avenue stepped a bit closer to reality yesterday as a city council committee advanced legislative rezoning for the projects via three bills, which are heading to a final city council vote.

One bill would rezone 2501 Washington Avenue from I-2 medium industrial to IRMX industrial/residential mixed-use. The developer there, Hightop Washington, LLC, proposes a five-story 60-unit apartment building with first floor retail, 17 townhomes, 3 triplexes and 46 parking spaces. The mixed-use complex would stand on the northwest corner of 25th Street and Washington, with parking and an interior street to the inward-facing townhomes behind it. Hightop has committed to an Economic Opportunity Plan, pledging that at least 32 percent of the construction crews hired will be local residents, but the Plan and the underlying provisions of the city code are silent on what constitutes “local”.

Two other bills clear the way for Lincoln Square, Alterra Property Group’s proposed nine-story, 356-unit apartment complex and grocery store at the northwest corner of Broad Street and Washington Avenue. One rezones the currently empty parcel from I-2 medium industrial to CMX-3 mixed-use commercial. The other modifies the West Washington Avenue Overlay to exempt the site from certain restrictions, allowing an eating and drinking establishment, increasing the permitted occupied area, and permitting non-accessory parking.

All of the proposed ordinances were introduced by 2nd District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson in April. The South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA), the coordinating registered community organization for the area, testified that its membership voted unanimously at two separate community meetings to support the two projects.

Despite the overwhelming support from SOSNA, the bills weren’t without controversy. These two singular rezoning proposals along Washington Avenue inspired testimony from nearly a dozen individuals. By the numbers, the speakers were evenly split, for and against. By decibels or duration of testimony, the opposition dominated.

Even though both projects require zoning changes, they comport with the recommendations in the Philadelphia 2035 Central and South District Plans, which in large part call for increased density and more mixed-use development in the booming areas.

To date, Johnson has not pursued comprehensive zoning remapping on Washington Avenue or in Point Breeze to advance the district plan, choosing instead to rezone parcel-by-parcel as development proposals arise. Doing so hasn’t shielded him from any vitriol. He has still faced a primary challenge and lawsuits from developer Ori Feibush, and on Tuesday sat as the passive, primary target of the development opponents’ searing testimony. Johnson has chosen the anti-Bandaid removal approach to rezoning, and gentrification politics don’t get much hairier than Point Breeze.

Zoning remapping bills to advance other district plans have been able to be implemented with relative ease, a small group of residents in Point Breeze have rancorously opposed any and all proposals in the area. At the same hearing on Tuesday, a handful of bills rezoning large swaths of East Falls in conformity with the Lower Northwest district plan sailed through without an iota of on-the-record opposition. 

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