South Street West Civic Association board ousted in election upset

Remember the South Street West Civic Association?

When last we heard from them their president, Barbara Failer, was leading the charge against a variance request from developer Jason Nusbaum to build a five-story mixed-use building at 2300 South Street in Graduate Hospital, on the grounds that it was too tall and wouldn’t supply any on-site parking.

The South of South Neighbors Association (SOSNA), the larger, higher-capacity RCO in the area, and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s office supported the project, but with an assist from Terry Gillen and some other local power players, the South Street West Civic Association’s position ultimately prevailed before the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Now, as Marcus Ferreira of the South Street West Business Association has pointed out, the ZBA’s rejection of the 2300 South St. variance immediately followed a news cycle in which ZBA was dinged for approving too many variances in the wake of the 2012 zoning reforms. Which is just to say that it’s not clear how much credit SSWCA’s organizing really deserves for deep-sixing the plan.

Regardless, in the aftermath of all this the project took on a symbolic significance for some members of SOSNA and neighborhood activists in their orbit, and 2300 South St. became one of the issues in the great 30th Ward reformer fight in last spring’s Democratic primaries. The context is that Failer is a committeewoman in the 30th ward aligned with the current ward leader Marcia Wilkof, and supporters of Wilkof’s challenger, TJ Hurst, generally supported Nusbaum’s plan.

Wilkof held onto her seat, as did Failer, but when the next opportunity arose to diminish their influence, their opponents pounced. Fast.

Under the new zoning code, all Registered Community Organizations like SOSNA and SSWCA have to hold elections, and on Monday of this week SSWCA quietly announced they would hold their elections on Wednesday evening—conveniently overlapping with a SOSNA meeting.

When SOSNA caught wind of that, they broadcasted the meeting information to their Facebook followers:

SOSNA message

Over the next two days, activists hustled (via Facebook comments and emails, naturally) to put together a slate of candidates to run for the SSWCA board. 

Brad Dakake, the chair of the Gray’s Ferry Triangles Committee responsible for the new pedestrian plaza at 23rd and South, and a newly-elected committeeman in Failer’s division who ran on TJ Hurst’s slate, emerged from those conversations as the candidate for chair.

Fred Ritter, an account manager at Swell who helped organize the effort, said the group wasn’t aware until yesterday morning that SSWCA would actually be electing a full board and just replacing the chair wouldn’t necessarily suffice to change the RCO’s policy direction. He was recruited to run for treasurer at 3pm yesterday afternoon.

Filling out the slate, Matthew Olesh, an attorney at Fox Rothschild LLP and a committeeman in the 14th division who also won on the Hurst slate, would run for vice chair and Jessica Beaver, a research associate at Research for Action and a member of SOSNA’s economic development committee, would run for secretary.

The group spent the afternoon sending emails and Facebook messages to everyone they knew who lived in the area, and they succeeded in packing the meeting with about 30 supporters. (SSWCA’s by-laws stipulated no special membership requirements, and allowed any resident or business owner within the RCO’s boundaries to vote.)

When the votes were tallied, Dakake prevailed, 31 to 3. Olesh, Ritter, and Beaver were voted in as Treasurer and Secretary by similar margins (a few Dakake supporters left after the first round of voting) for a clean sweep of the board.

“We’re thrilled that the community came out to show its support and look forward to working hard for everyone to make our slice of Philadelphia the best it can be,” said Dakake, in a statement.

“It was made very clear that the community wants projects like the Triangles Plaza, which a year ago received 98% support from a door-to-door canvass of everyone within a 2-block radius.”

When reached for comment, Failer declined to discuss the election at length. “The only thing I have to say is congratulations to the new board,” she said.

As with the ward committee elections, the actual statutory power one can wield in these low-level neighborhood positions is miniature (I would know, as a recently-elected committeeman in the 2nd ward, and as a board member of the Bella Vista Neighbors Association.)

But while the zoning code establishes RCOs like SSWCA as advisory-only bodies, the fact is that City Council members and the ZBA do pay attention to what they want, especially when they demonstrate the capacity to organize politically. That doesn’t always cleanly translate into policy wins, as in the case of 2300 South St. which had the support of the area’s biggest RCO and Councilman Johnson. But it does count for something, and neighborhood groups can certainly make an impact on the margin.

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