Planning Commission supports zoning relief for 205 Race proposal

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission lent its support Tuesday afternoon to the developer of a proposed 16-story apartment building at 2nd and Race streets, despite opposition from some community groups. The developer, Brown Hill, is seeking relief from the old zoning code, under which its application was submitted, in six areas: height, gross floor area, parking, maximum building width, minimum open lot area, and minimum depth of loading space.

Joe Syrnick was the only Commissioner to withhold support for the variances.

Jeff Brown of Brown Hill and the project architect, Peter Gluck, pointed to several changes that had been made to the design since they’d first presented it as information only last October. Jeff Brown said that the team had “improved the view corridors” down to the waterfront and the Ben Franklin Bridge, and “changed the geometry of the building itself. Peter Gluck, a New York-based architect, said the building was designed to transition between the large scale of the bridge, against which it abuts, and the smaller scale of Old City. The Old City zoning overlay includes a 65-foot height limit; the proposal calls for the tower portion of the building to reach 197 ½ feet.

In a letter of opposition addressed to the Planning Commission, Old City Civic Association wrote that the proposal “is a conspicuous over-build of the parcel and illustrates a disregard for the applicable development standards – previous or new zoning codes …”

Rob Kettell, a member of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, testified after the Commission staff’s recommendation of the approval that “there is no physical reason” for the building to exceed the 65-foot height limit based on the conditions of the parcel. He said the only reason he could think the developer needed to do so would be to get a greater financial return on the building.

“I’m not sure that greed is a legitimate reason to get rid of a longterm city policy,” Kettell concluded.

In another testimony, Joe Schiavo of Old City Civic Association said that while he likes the design of the building, and doesn’t expect new construction in Old City to look old, the developer’s proposal doesn’t fit into the “package” the neighborhood. He implored the Commission not to treat development proposals as “beauty contests.”

But neighborhood opposition is not complete. Rick Snyderman, owner of an Old City art gallery, said the proposal reflects a “very interesting change in culture” taking place in Center City Philadelphia. He compared the 205 Race Street proposal to the Society Hill Towers, which were built in the early 1960s during Ed Bacon’s tenure as director of the Planning Commission. Snyderman said that it is appropriate in this case for the Commission to sidestep the regulations and approve the project, saying that the “iconic piece of architecture” would establish a new standard, as well as signal “what is about to happen on the waterfront.”

A zoning board hearing is scheduled for November 7th, according to the Planning Commission’s agenda, though the item does not yet appear on the online ZBA calendar.

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