When Roxborough’s Dearnley Mansion was lost to development in 2005, it became a rallying point for those who wished to see Roxborough with a historic district to protect significant and beloved sites in the neighborhood.
Long story short: It didn’t happen. So when the Giovannone brothers bought and demolished the former Bunting House at the corner of Ridge and Roxborough avenues, there was little neighbors could do to legally stop it. And as other developers have moved to knock down other older, larger houses to make way for taller, tighter rowhouses, there’s been a growing sense of alarm in the community.
From tiny Delmar Street in Ridge Park to wider, leafy Lyceum Avenue in Central Roxborough, older homes on larger pieces of property are giving way to blocks of new houses. Now, the city Planning Commission staff are working with residents and Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.’s office to craft a strategy to get some control of an intense wave of homebuilding.
“Roxborough is not a secret anymore,” said Matt Wysong, the Northwest’s community planner, who appeared at a public meeting late last week with Planning Commission colleague and zoning specialist Paula Brumbelow. “People know this is a great neighborhood. This neighborhood has the best of what the city and the suburbs have to offer.”
Exploring the Neighborhood Conservation Overlay idea
Many Roxborough neighborhoods predated the city’s first zoning code, and their uses have not kept up with changing designations over the years, Brumbelow said. They discussed creating a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay within the zoning code to create guidelines for new building, a move that would be done in conjunction with the Fourth District Councilman’s office.
As a start, the areas included are roughly bounded by Leverington Avenue, Ridge Avenue, Monastery Avenue and Manayunk Avenue, though not all properties are considered in need of remapping. Other areas could be added later, but Wysong said this area is both outside the existing Ridge Avenue Neighborhood Commercial Area overlay and along the streets with the most already-identified historic buildings.
Helen Mangelsdorf lives on Lyceum Avenue and has watched several houses on her block go down. She said because so many of the demolitions were being done by right, it felt like neighbors were always being taken by surprise. Now, she feels like something could be done.
“We want to quit tearing down these beautiful old houses that make this neighborhood what it is,” she said.
Historic district designation
Another approach to preservation is a historic district designation, which could protect beloved or significant properties such as the Bunting House.
On May 29, an informational session will be held discussing formation of a National Historic District including parts of Roxborough and Manayunk. That meeting will be held at 7 p.m. May 29, at Journey’s Way, 401 Rector St., and will include presentations by the state Historic and Museum Commission and the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
The art of remapping
A third move includes a zoning remapping, to create designations which are more or less dense, to better match them to current or future uses, a process referred to as “upzoning” and “downzoning.”
Wysong mentioned some key larger properties, such as the Salvation Army on Pechin Street and the Masonic Temple on Conarroe Street, and why zoning and planning now could head off potential problems with re-use of them.
Wysong said the Planning Commission would likely hold another public meeting over the summer. In September, legislation creating the overlay and remapping several areas could be introduced in City Council, and passed by November.
That’s an ambitious timetable, which will involve Planning Commission staff spending a lot of time in the neighborhood in coming weeks collecting data about current zoning designations and uses. The current efforts won’t halt demolitions already scheduled or planned to take place before legislation is passed, but feedback from neighbors can help planners make sure other properties are protected.
“Show me what’s important to your neighborhood,” Brumbelow said. “Over the summer, I want you to get everybody excited about this process.”
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