Residents decry altered development plan for historic strip of Northwest Philadelphia

 A representative from Nolen Properties on Thursday night. (Queen Muse/for NewsWorks)

A representative from Nolen Properties on Thursday night. (Queen Muse/for NewsWorks)

Northwest Philadelphia residents say they’re generally happy with what local real estate company Nolen Properties was able to with the historic Nugent and Presser Home buildings on W. Johnson Street. 

What they’re not so satisfied with, however, are the plans for a modern, five-story apartment building that the company wants to put in between the two structures.

Discussions about the proposed development got underway at a meeting held Thursday night in the community room of the new Presser Senior Apartments at 101 W Johnson St.

Issues discussed at the meeting date back to 2006, when Nolen Properties purchased the near 6-acre plot of land with hopes of converting the former George Nugent Home for Baptists and the former Presser Home for Retired Music Teachers buildings into market-rate apartments.

A change in plans

Nolen instead wound up taking advantage of tax credits and renovating the two buildings to build affordable housing for seniors. Plans to develop the land behind the two buildings were originally met with positive consensus from the community.

Now, Nolen’s Managing Director Richard Sudall says the real estate collapse of 2008 has forced the company to alter its plans.

“We didn’t know the market was gonna crash. The world has changed. This is not the same world we had when it was 2007 when we finalized that plan. We thought the whole property could be market rate at that time, and of course, now we know that it can’t be,” Sudall said.

Nolen’s original proposal included restoration of the Nugent and Presser buildings, and a proposed third building and carriage house that sits at the rear of the property.

Sudall says it is now more financially feasible for the company to hold off on developing buildings on the rear lot, to instead put a new building on the plot of land that sits between the Presser and Nugent buildings, which is currently occupied by unkempt greenery.

Neighbors respond

Susan Dannenberg, Vice Chair of the Mt. Airy Neighbors Zoning Committee moderated the Thursday evening discussion, which at times got heated as neighbors began to express their objections to the proposed plan.

Some of the top issued raised by residents were that the proposed 5-story building would be too big, and that it would eliminate more green space in the neighborhood. Some said the modern look of the building would not fit in well with the two historic structures at either side. Others said they weren’t even ready to think about what the building should look like because they don’t want the building to be built at all.

“I have been so happy with what Nolen has done with these two buildings. It has just been amazing, and I have no problem with them developing the building behind the Nugent. But this building is at the front and center. I think it’s so big, compared to these two historic buildings, that’s its just going to overtake them, and it’s just not appropriate for the neighborhood,” Mt. Airy resident Kristin Mullaney said.

Karen Escovitz lives at the end of McCallum Street, just one block from where the proposed building would be. Escovitz said she worries about the impact the new building will have on the overall open feel of the neighborhood.

“When you come down my street, it opens up to this beautiful historic view,” she said. “Now, when I come to the end of McCallum Street, I’m going to see this very large, imposing building square in the middle. It closes up all of that space and that feeling of openness that I’m used to seeing at the end of my street. I know that’s not your priority, but for me, it’s the main reason I don’t want to see this built.”

Morrie Zimmerman of BWA Architecture & Planning, however, argued that the proposed building is no larger or more imposing than the nearby McCallum or Cliveden apartment buildings.

“As a professional architect I just don’t see this as being overbuilt,” he said.

For 37-year Mt. Airy resident Christine Tilles, the only thing that really matters is quality of life. She says she plans to rally her neighbors to get Nolen to stick to its original plan for the property.

“We’re gonna resist this, and not because we don’t appreciate what the developer has done, but just like anything, the developer wants to increase their bottom line. We’re interested in quality of life. We want this developer to stick to his initial plan,” she said. “We’ve rallied before and we will do that again.”

Sudall says Nolen will continue to reach out to the community for feedback throughout the process of green lighting the new building, which has yet to be approved by the City’s Zoning Board.

“We have to dance this bottom line between whatever the public wants, and what the developers want because this is a public project. So, we are trying to make this more interactive. If we wanted to just do what we wanted to do, we would not be here presenting this,” he said.

A meeting of the West Mt. Airy Neighbors Zoning Committee will be held on June 4 at 7:30 p.m., in the Presser Senior Apartments community room. Residents are invited to attend.

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