PCPC doesn’t like look of proposed Chestnut Street residential development, but supports it anyway

Philadelphia City Planning Commissioners remain unhappy with the looks of a 12-story residential building Aquinas Realty plans to build at 2017-23 Chestnut Street, but they voted to support the zoning relief needed to build it, anyway.

Commissioners’ displeasure – largely centered around the building materials the developer intends to use on the Chestnut Street facade, including air louvers that would be visible from the street –  was first expressed when the Aquinas team brought their project to the PCPC for an information-only session last month.  The commission asked Aquinas to look at other alternatives. Aquinas brought them more detailed renderings of the same louvers proposal.

“We didn’t say bring us another picture,” said Commissioner Patrick Eiding. “I take a little offense at how you over-simplified our request.” The project, to be located, next to the Art Deco YWCA building that now houses Friere Charter School, will begin new development on that part of Chestnut Street, Eiding said. “If we…go cheap to begin with, where are we going to end up in the future?” he asked.

Aquinas team members told the board the building would not be cheap, but would be modern-looking. It would not be an all-granite building, said Michael Ytterberg of BLT Architects, because the project isn’t as luxurious as 10 Rittenhouse.

“Quite frankly, there are not that many more options that are not more money,” he said, and, the economy being what it is, that’s important stuff.

Last time around, he described the project’s proximity to Rittenhouse Square, and said it would expand the kind of “luxury residential and retail” found around the square onto this portion of Chestnut.

The proposed development would consist of 11 stories of residential space with 110 rental apartments. And ground floor retail space including a large space suitable for a restaurant.  Aquinas was chosen to develop the property through a request for proposal from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority in 2010. The RDA board gave its approval on Dec. 5.

The project needs several zoning variances to be built as planned. A ZBA hearing is slated for Feb. 29, project attorney Neil Sklaroff said.

Ytterberg on Tuesday showed the commission actual material samples of the louvers and the facade materials. This system is by no means the cheapest, he said. That would be the under-the-window heating and AC units used in hotels – and in many residential buildings in New York City, he said.

Commissioner Nancy Rogo-Trainer did not seem to like this explanation.  She said she thought the bump from the originally proposed eight stories to the current 12 is what made the economics work.

The development team said they did not discount what the commissioners had said, and would be happy to discuss in more detail why they remain certain the  materials they’ve selected are the right ones for the project. They said there are different options for the louvers, such as narrower air inlets, that could be considered for aesthetic purposes.

Senior Deputy Director of Commerce Duane Bumb, who sat in for Commerce Director and Commission Chair Alan Greenberger Tuesday, said the commission should act. “This is a project I think is a very positive addition to the city, and not one we want to hold up in any way,” he said when he made the motion to follow staff’s recommendation to support it. It passed unanimously.
In other PCPC action:

-The Commission voted to support a zoning change that will allow the development of the National Center for the American Revolution. Under Bill 120023, introduced by First District Councilman Mark Squilla, the area bounded by 2nd, 3rd, Chestnut and Walnut streets would be rezoned from “recreation” to “C3 Commercial.” Community Planner Larissa Klevan explained that no land owned by a private entity could be zoned for recreation.

-Commission support was also granted for Zoning Bill 120024, which remaps parcels in the area bounded by Snyder and Pattison avenues, the Delaware River and I-95. Introduced by District 2 Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and District 1 Councilman Mark Squilla, the bill would change the zoning of the area from LR, Least Restrictive, to Port Industrial and G2, General Industrial.  Planner Martin Gregorski said that the current LR zoning is “the most permissive industrial class” and allows uses such as oil refineries and chemical works. Planning looked at the zoning at the request of Whitman Council, in hopes the change will allow the Port to expand operations while stopping more intensive industrial uses from coming in, Gregorski said. The change makes sense to planning based on existing and projected land uses for the area, he said.

-Administrative approval was given in support of zoning changes that would allow the Philadelphia Zoo to build a parking garage with mixed-use development. Commission Executive Director Gary Jastrzab said the Zoo needs zoning relief to build a parking garage on the site, which has been used as its parking lot for decades. Also, current zoning would require industrial-sized parking spaces, and the zoo’s spaces are too small for that, but plenty big enough for passenger vehicles.  The city has also determined that because the land in question was acquired for park use, it could not be easily transferred to the zoo. Legal is now working on a long-term lease agreement, Jastrzab said.

-Administrative approval was given to a zoning bill that would repeal a 2007 bill that rezoned a portion of Burholme Park as an Institutional Development District. This would have allowed Fox Chase Cancer Center to expand. In Feb. 2009, the state supreme court denied an appeal of a lower court order blocking the expansion on that land. The new bill would restore the zoning to recreation.

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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