Roxborough residents consider proposals for new remapping plan

 Paula Brumbelow speaks to residents about proposed zoning adjustments in Roxborough. (Matthew Grady/for NewsWorks)

Paula Brumbelow speaks to residents about proposed zoning adjustments in Roxborough. (Matthew Grady/for NewsWorks)

With an eye toward sensible and sustainable growth, city planners met with Roxborough residents on Monday to consider possible zoning remapping for sections of their neighborhood.

As presented by officials from the city planning commission, several sites in four sections of central Roxborough could receive changes to their zoning designation in order to guide future development.

Matt Wysong, a city planner responsible for Northwest Philadelphia, told several dozen residents present that there are four primary zoning adjustments in consideration, which will create designations that are more or less dense and better match properties to current or future uses.

“Downzoning” reduces the density of housing and reduces the possibility for demolition; “Upzoning” will accommodate increasing demand by allowing repurposing of vacant lots and other underutilized sites.

“Corrective” zoning would legitimize historic usages of certain sites and ameliorate mismatched properties; “Continuous” zoning would be the incorporation of non-standard properties.

“It’s not a silver bullet,” said Wysong, explaining the potential impact of the changes. “It’s just a tool to fix things.”

In response to recent demolition tension

As noted by local residents on Monday, the last zoning overhaul in Roxborough took place in 1972. Development has steadily increased in the neighborhood since that time, with occasional friction between the interests of residents and developers.

This tension came to a head late in 2012, when the owners of a property on the 5900 block of Ridge Avenue – known as the Bunting House – decided to tear down the residence, which dated to the 1880s. After a well-publicized appeal process, led by members of local civic organizations, a court-ordered injunction was denied and demolition of the house took place in December.

In light of this, several local residents stepped to the forefront, looking at various ways to protect their neighborhood, culminating in a series of public meetings. Beyond the zoning adjustments above, two other options are under consideration.

A Neighborhood Conservation Overlay was discussed, which would provide guidelines for new construction. In addition, a proposal is underway to create a Roxborough-Manayunk Historic District, which would include much of Central and Lower Roxborough and Manayunk.

However, Wysong was quick to note that these two initiatives are being driven at the neighborhood level.

“I’m on the sidelines guiding them,” he said. “This is really coming out of the consciousness of the people in the community who are interested in this.”

Addressing residents’ concerns 

Despite the community-based drive of these initiatives, residents still had concerns about the changes to the zoning.Some residents were concerned that the zoning adjustments could have negative effects on the values of Roxborough properties. Wysong countered by describing future property values as being “speculative.”

Prompted by a question related to grandfathering of certain usages, Wysong said that any variances currently in place will be allowed to continue unless the property goes vacant for three years. His City Planning colleague Paula Brumbelow reminded residents that lacking permits is illegal and therefore not a protected right.

Asked by a resident about what’s being done to combat increased vehicular traffic due to development, Wysong responded that the city is currently undertaking a study that will eventually provide a comprehensive strategy for such issues. He also observed that a portion of this traffic is driven by development outside of Philadelphia, which cannot be controlled by city agencies.

For Wysong, the solutions are public transit – and smart development.

A project driven by the public 

While resident response at the meeting was largely favorable to the planned changes, officials insisted that this was a public-driven project, and that their actions would be governed by community input.

As the principal conduit for this response, Josh Cohen, special assistant to Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., said that his office was prepared to field this feedback.

“If I get calls saying ‘this doesn’t make any sense,'” said Cohen, “we’re not going to do it.”

However, should the plans move forward, he expressed optimism that the zoning adjustments would receive support in City Council.

“We believe that the 16 members of Council will follow Councilman Jones’ lead,” Cohen said.

‘We set our sights high’

Work will continue to move the zoning adjustments forward while community input is tabulated and leveraged.

As explained by Brumbelow, titles and deeds will be examined and a bill will be drafted by mid-September. This bill will be submitted to the office of Councilman Jones, who will then introduce it into City Council by early-October. It will then go to the Planning Commission, and with their blessing, it will return to Council’s Rules Committee, with final approval from Council envisioned by Thanksgiving.

“The zoning will go into effect once it’s signed by the Mayor,” said Brumbelow. “When somebody comes to apply for permits, they will begin to see the new zone.”

Residents can also expect additional opportunities to participate in the process, with a public meeting expected to be held in September to discuss the proposed Neighborhood Conservation zoning overlay.

While much work remains, Wysong expressed hope on Monday for the many plans currently before Roxborough residents.

“We set our sights high with this,” he said. “If we get half of it done, it will be a success.”

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