Protecting the Italian Market’s walkability is the goal of new City Council bill

Councilman Mark Squilla is stepping into a fight over a driveway that opponents say would threaten the pedestrian character of the Italian Market.

Anastasi seafood in the Italian Market. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Anastasi seafood in the Italian Market. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Councilman Mark Squilla is stepping into a fight over a driveway that opponents say threatens the pedestrian nature of the Italian Market.

The driveway in question would interrupt 9th Street south of Washington Avenue with an exit out of an underground garage belonging to a planned apartment building.

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On Thursday, Squilla introduced a bill that would create a new overlay district that bans new curb cuts on 9th Street between Catherine and Federal Street. The South Philadelphia councilman cited safety concerns.

“We believe if we are really into Vision Zero and looking at safety, putting these driveways on 9th street would go against the whole planning process of making our streets safer,” said Squilla.

The developer, Midwood Investment and Development, said through an attorney, Peter Kelsen, that the company is reviewing the legislation and has no comment.

Midwood’s 157-unit building would fill in a massive vacant lot bordering the high-traffic intersection of 9th and Washington and the parcel right on the corner, currently occupied by Anastasi Seafood.

The New York-based developer has argued that it was the city’s Streets Department and Planning Commission that requested the curb cut and driveway on 9th Street in 2014 when the project got started, and that making substantive changes to the building’s design at this late stage is impracticable.

It is unclear whether the new bill is anything more than a symbolic protest. The project already has its zoning and use permits, though it hasn’t yet received final curb cut approvals from the Streets Department. Squilla’s bill would not affect that process because Midwood already got the zoning approvals needed for the driveway.

Even if the bill could handicap the project, the next Rules Committee hearing isn’t scheduled until mid-May. That means the developer has at least three weeks to get everything sorted out before the bill could conceivably pass.

Squilla acknowledged that the bill may be coming too late. “Unfortunately, the developer [went] forward with putting those driveway designs on 9th Street and we are hoping that through this legislation we can convince them to come back to the table.”

The president of the Passyunk Square Civic Association, Sarah Anton, said the bill is meant to signal to city agencies and the developer that the curb cut is a serious misstep. Even if the bill cannot prevent this curb cut on 9th Street, her organization hopes it will forestall future such efforts.

“As a long-term step, we are worried about the precedent being set. We don’t want any more curb cuts in the market,” said Anton. “It would provide reassurance that even if this one project has an impact that goes against [our hopes for the market], at least there won’t be any more.”

Driveway opponents say that breaking up the street with curb cuts will make it difficult to close the market off to automobile traffic on the weekends, a popular way to bring in more tourists and shoppers. One of the oldest public food markets in the United States, the South Philly fixture has struggled with various pressures in recent years as the residential blocks around it gentrify.

The project is scheduled to come before the city’s Civic Design Review board on Tuesday. At the committee’s last meeting, debate over the curb cut dominated the session. A Passyunk Square representative said then that the neighborhood would prefer a taller, denser project, something they had previously protested, to a curb cut on 9th Street.

“Breaking up 9th Street with a curb cut [in] the only open-air market in the entire city forecloses opportunities for the increased vitality of the market,” Andrew Stober, vice-president of the Passyunk Square Civic Association said at that hearing.

Midwood also owns a nearby building on the corner of 9th and Christian Streets and several buildings on South Street as well as multiple Center City properties.

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