Planning endorses zoning relief for CHOP’s Schuylkill Ave. project

Approval came with provisos: CHOP must flesh out plans for future phases, work with the community on those plans, and seek rezoning of the site from industrial to mixed use.

Planning Commissioners Tuesday recommended the zoning board grant Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia the zoning relief it needs to build an office/research facility at 700 Schuylkill Ave., but their approval was contingent on CHOP continuing to work with neighborhood business and civic groups and seeking rezoning of their parcel to mixed-use commercial.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment already held a hearing on the variance, which would allow CHOP to build 11 fewer loading docks than the site’s current zoning requires.The ZBA already held the hearing, but was waiting on the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) recommendation before issuing a decision.

While technically the sessions held on this project at various city agencies, committees, and community groups are about those loading docks, the docks have barely been mentioned. Discussions have instead centered on the development’s connections to the surrounding neighborhoods and the river, pedestrian and cyclist safety, and urban vs. suburban style development.

Presenting for CHOP, Donald Clinton of Cooper, Robertson & Partners came to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission with a list of changes the hospital has made to its plan in response to concerns raised by project neighbors, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, and PCPC’s Civic Design Review Committee:

  • Elimination of one of the two previously planned curb cuts off of the South Street Bridge to alleviate concerns about bicyclist and pedestrian safety.
  • An increase of commercial space on South and Bainbridge streets.
  • A commitment to continue meeting with neighborhood residents and businesses through this first phase of development and all future phases.
  • Enlargement of the ground-floor cafe, an amenity for CHOP employees but also neighborhood residents, especially after business hours and on weekends.
  • A promise to pursue zoning change that would allow for more commercial space on the property, and commercial use that is not directly related to CHOP.
  • The building of a pedestrian bridge over the CSX tracks to connect people to the Schuylkill Banks Trail, and to complete all public open space, in phase one.
  • Traffic calming devices.
  • Bike share onsite.
  • Continuation of the shape of the tower down to the river, so the CSX required crash wall isn’t just a blank wall.

Clinton said CHOP was creating the space for active use at Bainbridge and Schuylkill, but doubts there’s a market for retail. “We’re looking at uses that don’t depend on the market, such as the credit union CHOP uses,” he said.

“There was a really robust dialogue about what should happen and a lot of good will on both sides,” said Commissioner Nancy Rogo Trainer, who chairs the PCPC’s Civic Design Review committee, which also weighed in on the proposal. “I don’t think anybody’s likely to be entirely happy,” she said. “But to me, going from two curb cuts on the South Street Bridge to one is a really good thing.”

She said that and other positive changes came out of the CDR process, and she praised both the community groups and CHOP for making that happen.

Steve Cobb of Councilman Johnson’s office said the changes meant Johnson could support a favorable recommendation from the PCPC. Representatives from South of South Neighbors Association, South St. West Civic Association, South Street West Business Association, and other neighbors and observers also thanked CHOP for the changes made.

But there were some remaining concerns. Prominent among them:

  • The belief by many that CHOP was treating this project as an island separate from the surrounding neighborhood.
  • The project needs a strong comprehensive plan for all phases of development not just for the first one.
  • More information is needed about how traffic from those future phases will impact the neighborhoods.
  • Is the wall around the parking structure on Schuylkill Avenue really necessary?
  • It would be better to rezone the area for mixed use commercial, and have a wider variety of uses, like a neighborhood does.

The Design Advocacy Group’s Kiki Bolender said she can “see the joy” in the center portions of CHOP’s plan, even in the faces of the illustrative people sitting beneath the trees in the open space. But “everything around the edges where you meet the neighborhood seems grudging. Why can’t there be life in those edges?”

Regarding the elimination of the second South Street Bridge curb cut, Clinton, the architect, said CHOP, too, was concerned about cyclist and pedestrian safety, but the second cut was in place to help lessen problems stemming from vehicles coming around the hairpin corner at 27th Street, and to provide access for the LUCY bus and emergency vehicles.

There are other options for LUCY, he said, including the #40 bus stop. The fire department tested the hairpin corner, and they can make the turn, he said.

The area where the driveway would have been is not viable for commercial use because of potential flooding, he said, but it could be landscaped.

Center City Residents Association President Jeffrey Braff said his organization was in agreement that two curb cuts were problematic for cyclists and pedestrians, but CHOP has eliminated the wrong one. The eliminated eastern-most curb cut provided access into an open-air driveway and drop-off loop at the front of the building that would provide adequate access for all users -cyclists and drivers of automobiles, emergency vehicles and other large vehicles. Many users will be forced instead to negotiate the hairpin turn at 27th onto Schuylkill Avenue, Braff said.

“By choosing to eliminate the eastern curb cut connecting to the open air driveway, CHOP has forgotten the reason for placing a ramp off of the Bridge in the first place: to minimize CHOP-specific traffic entering the adjacent residential neighborhood,” he said.  (A CCRA letter on the subject is attached to the bottom of this article.)

PCPC Chairman Alan Greenberger said he also had concerns about both cyclist and pedestrian safety and this hairpin turn, and he wasn’t sure that eliminating the second entrance would work out. So he suggested that CHOP not put anything in the space where that entrance would go, just in case it was later determined the project needed it. “If you retain the potential of it, and I don’t see why you can’t, then the possibility is there.”

Greenberger noted the need for more detailed plans for future phases. “I would like to suggest, to insist, that planning involve coordination with the community groups and planning commission,” he said.

He agreed with Clinton that there was no demand for retail at Schuylkill and Bainbridge now. It’s good that CHOP is providing the space, he said, but the bank is “too easy a way out.” It would be better, Greenberger said, to come up with some creative use for that space that doesn’t necessarily try to make money. It’s a small space, he said, so CHOP doesn’t need the financial numbers to work for it.

Rendering of future CHOP facility from South Street Bridge
Rendering of future CHOP facility from South Street Bridge

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