Roxborough residents fight new developer on Green Lane

Roxborough homeowners are fighting a developer’s plan to demolish a historic home at 365 Green Lane.

The “Benjamin Kenworthy House” sits back from the road at the top of the hill above Manayunk Avenue.

Victorian houses in the vicinity of the intersection were once the homes of 19th century mill owners and managers, residents that local Kay Sykora calls the “key people in the Industrial Revolution” that defined Manayunk.

Kenworthy, an industrialist and banker, was the first owner of the house, which was constructed in the 1870s.

“Destroying” residences like this one, said Sykora, who also serves as the director of Destination Schuylkill River, is akin to “tearing away at the historical fabric of the community.”

Rezoning efforts

About 18 months ago, the city’s Planning Commission worked with the Central Roxborough Civic Association to remap the zoning of larger, single residence homes like the Kenworthy House.

The process revealed inappropriate classifications that would have allowed developers to more easily petition for new construction projects.

Owners of historical residences were pleased with the remapping, which gave many of their properties an RSD-3 code, certifying that they were intended for single-family dwellings.

This was the code given to 365 Green Lane before developer Todd Joseph purchased it last December.

A proposal from a new owner

Eight months prior to the sale, the home’s previous owner of 51 years died. Millicent “Millie” Berghaus had lived there with her late husband John, a piano teacher who worked in a home studio.

After Millie’s passing, her relatives told neighbors that they wanted to sell the house to someone who would preserve it.

Prudence Humber, a neighbor who helped care for Berghaus, said that a representative for Joseph assured the family that the property would be well protected.

Prior to the settlement, local lawyer Hal Schirmer sent the prospective buyer a letter that “fully informed” him of the rezoning.

Before the date of sale, the architecture firm Joseph hired, DVC Architects, drew up two plans for the construction of several townhomes on the property.

The plans were denied by the Department of Licenses and Inspections on Feb. 12 on the grounds that the plans required more space than the property allowed.

Appeal on the table

Members of the Central Roxborough Civic Association attended a hearing at the Zoning Board of Adjustment last week to try and ensure the board does not consider a current appeal from Joseph, who seeks to demolish the site and construct several townhomes on the property.

Celeste Hardester of the Central Roxborough Civic Association said the Zoning Board should not hear the appeal.

“[The owner] bought that land with the knowledge that he wouldn’t be able to do what he wanted to do,” she said.

Philadelphia requires appellants to the Zoning Board to address several requirements before a hearing, including two community-awareness obligations: Meet with a registered community organization to discuss their plans, and post notice of the hearing on the property 21 days beforehand.

Hardester and Sykora say that neither of these obligations have been met as of yet.

Members of the civic association attended last week’s meeting in an effort to remind the Zoning Board of these omissions.

Getting ‘smarter’ on historic preservation

Longtime Green Lane resident Prudence Humber said that in the wake of the demolition of Roxborough’s historic Bunting House, locals “have gotten smarter” about protecting homes and green space from developers who seek to buy large properties and fill them with smaller townhomes.

“We want to pressure them to the best of our ability,” Humber said.

One way to protect old homes from demolition is to obtain historical certification for those that qualify. Humber and Hardester have worked on such an application for the Benjamin Kenworthy House. This recognition, said Hardester, wouldn’t entirely protect properties; it would make developers “have a more compelling reason” for demolition.

“We’re not opposed to development,” said Sykora. “We’d just like development to respect the form of the area, and [the proposed plans are] so different from the form that is here.”

Instead of fighting new projects that don’t adhere to the “visual strength inherent to the neighborhood,” Hardester said she would rather focus on the influx of young adults and other new residents dedicated to preservation by “putting new life into what is already here.”

DVC Architects did not return phone or email messages.

Joseph, reached by phone, declined to comment on the issue. He is now scheduled to present his case to the Central Roxborough Civic Association on May 1. 

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