Dozens of neighbors in Olde Richmond banded together to protest a project from the same developer responsible for multiple construction issues and most recently, allegedly tried to evict his tenants illegally.
The project from developer Gagandeep Lakhmna at the corner of Cedar and Huntingdon streets would demolish a historic hosiery mill and replace it with a 150-apartment building that would stand seven stories tall in a neighborhood of rowhouses.
The project’s size has driven opposition from two neighborhood groups, the local registered community organization Olde Richmond Civic Association (ORCA) and Build Like You Live Here, since they learned about the project last October. But many neighbors who came out Thursday for the community-organized protest voiced deeper concerns about accountability in the development process.
One of those neighbors, Carrie Compton described the project as an “irresponsible development” because of Lakhmna’s checkered history with lawsuits, uncompleted projects, and complaints from tenants and buyers alleging construction flaws.
“I am very concerned,” she said. “It will be a detriment not only for the people who live inside it but also … for those of us who have to walk around it.”
Compton doesn’t understand how someone with his track record in the city is allowed to continue building without any consequences.
“I believe he’s going to suck what he can out of this building before he has to pay taxes in 10 years and then ditch it and sell it and then we’re going to have to deal with this massive liability on our street corners,” Compton said.
In December, City Council voted to delay a reduction to the city’s 10-year residential tax abatements until 2022.
Demolition of the factory began in February. It’s still standing but some of the low-rise warehouses have been demolished. Within the first few weeks of demolition, a water leak led to flooding for about a day on Huntingdon Street resulting in the city’s Water Department having to come out, and in the month since, the site has sat largely dormant, according to neighbors. The demolition crew got a violation by the city’s Air Management Services for improper dust suppression because of the ordeal.
Adrian Bondy, a neighbor and organizer with Build Like You Live Here, said he hasn’t been able to reach Lakhmna or his company, Greenpointe, beyond an email about the leak blaming intruders who tried to steal copper piping from the site.
One of the developer’s employees urged neighbors to call the police when people were allegedly entering illegally overnight.
“Unfortunately drug addicts and thieves are roaming the streets in this area,” emailed the Greenpointe employee. He noted that securing the site during demolition was “difficult.”
Lakhmna did not respond to PlanPhilly’s request for comment.
A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspection said they are aware of Lakhmna and Greenpointe but can’t comment further.
L&I has only had its Audits and Investigations Unit since 2017. Since then, L&I has suspended 18 licenses and issued seven revocations for risking public safety through building code violations. Six additional licenses actions are awaiting appeal.
While the perennially underfunded city department has implemented a number of safety improvement initiatives over the past four years, the city’s building boom has tested the capacity of overstretched inspectors. In the first four months of 2019, illegal construction damaged more properties than is typical in a full year, city officials said.
A ‘disgusting’ project
From the first time Lakhmna introduced the project to the Olde Richmond Civic Association, the group opposed the project’s scale and design. The city’s Civic Design Review committee was equally unimpressed, describing it as “disgusting, ridiculous, and a travesty.” Members of the city review committee found the project’s only silver lining in the “involvement of the community participating in the CDR process,” citing that engagement “as the only positive component of the proposal.”
City Councilmember Mark Squilla, who represents the district, said Lakhma took advantage of two zoning incentives intended to benefit neighborhoods — the mixed-income housing and fresh food market bonuses. These programs allow developers to increase height and density in exchange for paying into the city’s Housing Trust Fund or adding affordable units, or, in the case of the latter bonus, bringing a store selling fresh food into an area underserved by grocers. In this case, the project didn’t include any affordable housing and instead, paid into the Housing Trust Fund, and the surrounding neighborhood isn’t a food desert. Within blocks of 2400 E. Huntingdon Street, there’s an IGA Supermarket, Save-A-Lot, and the Kensington Community Food Co-op.
Squilla said Lakhmna’s use of the fresh food bonus inspired him to get rid of it in a zoning bill that passed City Council last week.
“It just goes to show that people are taking these types of bonuses and using it where it’s not intended just to benefit them and their development and not really take the consideration of the surrounding communities,” Squilla said.
Both neighbors and Squilla said they would have preferred adaptive reuse of the historic mill building.
Yet when neighbors voiced their concerns at various RCO and Civic Design Review meetings, Lakhmna, represented by lawyers, was not willing to reduce the number of units or reduce the height.
Squilla said he has since reached out to other developers to see if Lahkma would sell to another developer who was more willing to work with the community.
The district councilmember said he is also looking for ways to alter the zoning code to encourage more adaptive reuse instead of demolitions. He’s open to the idea of altering the code so developers would have to get a variance if they wanted to demolish a historic industrial building. He wants to bring in the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and the city’s Historic Commission into those talks.
“Those people would have to go get a variance and meet with the community and go over concerns,” Squilla said. “Therefore, there’s more input from the councilmember and the community for projects that don’t fit the structure of that neighborhood.”
State Rep. Joe Hohenstein (D-Philadelphia) also showed up at the protest in support.
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