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Old City rezoning bill drafted to avoid ZBA opposition from adjacent billboard owner

Facing opposition from Old City Civic Association and Keystone Outdoor Advertising, which owns a towering, tri-face billboard across the street from the site of the proposed 205 Race Street project, the developers of the 16-story, 128-dwelling-unit, mixed-use project considered resubmitting their zoning applications under the new zoning code, according to Councilman Mark Squilla.

Brown Hill had filed for six variances under the old code, but would have needed only two under the new one, Squilla said. But rather than starting the zoning process all over again, Squilla worked with the Nutter Administration to draft an amendment to the Old City zoning overlay that will allow the project to be built by right.

“We would have to start the whole process over,” Squilla said. “I thought I would just do an ordinance to do that and work it out that way.”

Old City Civic Association opposes the bill, calling it spot zoning and a degradation of the principles of the new zoning code. But the new overlay solves a real problem, according to Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger.

“There was a sense that development next to and around the bridge was a complicated matter that actually warranted some attention on its own, even though 205 Race may have been the trigger event,” Greenberger said.

The bill provides size and density bonuses to buildings in CMX-3 lots in the area between I-95, Race Street, 4th Street and New Street; 205 Race is one of the largest CMX-3 lots in that area, and the largest undeveloped lot according to Old City Civic Association.

“These sites are encumbered in a way that is unusual,” Greenberger said.

Greenberger also said that Keystone Outdoor Advertising opposed the project because it felt the building would block certain views of its billboard, and the developers worried that their opposition could hold up the project indefinitely.

“It’s easy for anybody to take ZBA matters to court,” Greenberger said, “especially for an owner of outdoor advertising, who spend a lot of money taking people to court and jamming up projects forever.”

Greenberger added, “As a practical matter, they’re in a much better position than damn near anybody else to jam it up in the courts.”

According to Squilla and Greenberger, the developers have negotiated with Keystone since withdrawing their zoning application earlier this year, and have agreed to make some changes to the design. The project will keep 128 residential units, but the portion fronting on Race Street will be lowered, according to Squilla, and the tower will be slightly raised. Greenberger said the design changes will—and our fingers resist even transcribing the phrase—“open up the view corridor to the billboard.”

Representatives of Brown Hill Development and their attorney were not immediately available for comment. An attorney for Keystone Outdoor Advertising could not be reached Tuesday morning.

Richard Thom, chair of Old City Civic Association’s developments committee, said it isn’t about how nice the design of the project is—he likes it—but about the purpose of zoning.

“The code is rewritten to avoid doing this,” Thom said. “One of the major objectives … which was pressured by the development community, was to rewrite the code so that it was dependable, it was an equal playing field, and it was reliable.”

Thom said that OCCA had supported an earlier proposal from the same developer, who has owned the parcel for 12 years, to build a 10-story building on the site. He said that design would have fit in better in Old City and blocked nobody’s view of the billboard.

“It’s not a beauty contest,” Thom said. “This is about land use, and overuse of the land. This is exactly what zoning does: it prevents overuse of the land.”

Council of course has the right to change the zoning code however and whenever it wants through the regular legislative process. The code clearly states—Ballard Spahr attorney Matt McClure reminded PlanPhilly on Monday—“Any person or entity, including the [Planning] Commission or a department or agency of the City, may request that the City Council enact an amendment of the text of this Zoning Code or the official zoning map …”

But Richard Thom said the point of writing a new zoning code was to “make it a reliable document for everyone, not just special interests.”

“And all this does is pander to special interests,” Thom said. “It’s no different than the 40-year-old code that it replaced.” 

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