University Southwest District Plan to be unveiled

The draft University Southwest District Plan calls for encouraging development in areas where it lags and better shaping it to community needs where the market is already strong – including areas near hospitals and universities.

The plan includes the neighborhoods of Powelton Village, University City, Saunders Park, West Powelton, Spruce Hill, Walnut Hill, Garden Court, Cedar Park, West Shore and Kingsessing. It calls for zoning changes allowing higher, denser mixed-use buildings along the eastern edge of the district and restricting properties to single-family use only in neighborhoods where there is current or projected pressure to divide houses into student apartments.

The University Southwest District Plan also calls for the condemnation of some groups of properties planners say are blighted and largely vacant and tax-delinquent; a public-private partnership to support a city rec center; better connections to the Schuylkill River and its attractions and easing transit transfers among some of the city’s most busy el, bus and trolley stops.

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission, which will receive information on the draft at its April 18 meeting, is expected to vote on plan adoption this summer. An open house at which the public can review the plan, ask planners questions, make comments and find out who won the University Southwest public planning game will be held next Monday (more information follows this story.)

If adopted by the PCPC, the University Southwest District Plan will be one of 18 district-level sections of the city’s new comprehensive plan, Philadelphia2035. The Lower Northeast, West Park and Lower South plans have already been adopted by the the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. The Central District plan was recently presented to the commission, and is also expected to come up for a vote later this year.

The University Southwest District Plan has five focus areas: 40th and Market streets; 46th and Market streets; Baltimore Avenue; Woodland Avenue and the 49th Street Connector. Earlier on in the planning process, there was a sixth focus area along the Lower Schuylkill, said City Planner Andrew Meloney, the University Southwest District Plan manager. The fifth area was dropped not because it isn’t important, Meloney said, but because so much planning work has already been done by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation through the Master Plan for the Lower Schuylkill River. The University Southwest plan relies on this work, he said.

The area around 40th and Market streets is the western edge of Philadelphia’s metropolitan center, and draft plan proposals include changing the zoning to allow taller, denser, mixed-use development. Current development proposals include the University City Science Center’s 27-story residential tower at 3601 Market. Under current CMX4 zoning, 3601 Market needs a variance, Meloney said. The developer would not need a variance under the zoning changes, which staff hope will be introduced in City Council after summer recess. Staff will recommend the planning commission support the relief for 3601 for the same reason it is recommending the zoning changes: Since this area is part of the urban center, more density and height makes sense.

The plan recommends an existing, low-density affordable housing development at 3900 Market Street be replaced with a much denser, mixed-use development including mixed-income residential units and possibly a hotel, all to take advantage of proximity to 40th Street Station.

Every existing resident would get a home in the new development, Meloney said.

The 40th and Market location is a multi-modal transit hub – an area where many transit users switch daily from the el and bus routes 30 and 40. When five trolleys are diverted from their usual route, there are even more people waiting for their next mode of transportation, said Meloney, who has lived in the area. “When every trolley on five lines is diverted, there are a lot of people waiting,” he said. Right now, he said, they are often leaning against the front of a shuttered corner store. The plan recommends shelters as a better alternative – the city could provide them within the next five years, he said. The city would also encourage SEPTA to install real-time screens letting people know when their ride is coming.

In the focus area near 46th and Market Streets, the plan endorses re-using the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Co. building as city police headquarters. The time frame for this is far from immediate, Meloney said. For one thing, further cost analysis of the move is needed. The plan recommends such a study.

In the nearer term, the plan recommends creating a strip of green space yielding both passive recreational use and storm water management adjacent to the historic building along Market Street. The green space wouldn’t cut into future development space for the parcel, Meloney said, because it is separated from the building by a retaining wall, necessitated by a grade change. The green space would improve the pedestrian environment in the area, Meloney said.

Other suggested improvements for pedestrians, including those walking to and from the El station, include creating a landscaped walkway between the el and Haverford Avenue.

The University City Southwest draft plan recommends that the existing West Park Apartments, a high-rise that provides low-income housing to families and seniors, be replaced with a more low-slung development that is better connected with the larger community. Currently, many streets end at the complex, Meloney said. These could be extended through a new development.

PHA has been replacing its high-rise buildings with more row-house scaled developments around the city, Meloney added, but the proposal wouldn’t happen quickly, as residents would need to be relocated while the new development was built.

Baltimore Avenue, Meloney said, is a study in economic contrasts. The overall goal in this focus area is encouraging the thriving business community to spread westward.

Planners believe some parts of the solution are fairly simple. The 52 bus is the busiest route in the district, and the 34 trolley has the second-highest ridership of all trolley routes. The two nodes intersect at 52nd Street, but bus riders have to cross at least one street to get on the trolley because the bus stops before the intersection of 52nd Street and Baltimore. The plan recommends moving the stop past the intersection, and providing an expanded trolley platform and shelters.

Other relatively easy recommendations include expanding the popular Cedar Park by removing a traffic island and traffic lane and recommending the former fire station at 701 S. 50th Street – the home of Dock Street Brewing Company – for the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

The owners of Dock Street haven’t been contacted yet, Meloney said, but any plan for the building’s future would need to include them.

The recommendations get a little more complicated at 51st and Baltimore. “It’s extremely blighted,” Meloney said. Some of the properties are city-owned. Others are privately owned. The owners of many of those properties are late on their taxes. The plan recommends that blight certification be sought for the area, which would help pave the way for condemning structures and getting some types of funding. The plan recommends the removed structures be replaced with senior housing, as a need for it has been identified in the area.

Woodland Avenue is a struggling commercial corridor, Meloney said, but one with much potential stemming from the growth of the University of the Sciences and University of Pennsylvania, the Schuylkill River Trail expansion and the potential, eventual realization of the Lower Schuylkill Master Plan. All of these things could create more demand for both commercial and residential development, he said, but that is many years down the road.

The focus area includes both the Kingsessing and Comegys Recreation centers. The Kingsessing Rec Center is one of the city’s most successful, Meloney said. During public input sessions, community members identified it as one of the three top destinations in the University Southwest District. Comegys gets much less use, he said. The plan calls for two different approaches in keeping both alive:

Kingsessing has no ramps to the first floor, and it has no elevators. The plan recommends the city fund both of these within the next five years.

Because it is used much less and located fairly close to Kingsessing, Comegys is not a good target for city funding. If it is to stay open, a public-private partnership will have to be created, Meloney said. The plan also calls for condemning 22 residential and commercial properties near Comegys – 14 are now vacant – and expanding its green space. The condemnation would again require blight certification. “Expanding the open space is a good use,” Meloney said. “There is slow potential for development overall.”

A change in the traffic pattern is proposed near Comegys to make entering and moving around the neighborhood easier and more logical.

Currently, anyone coming across the Grays Ferry Bridge and going onto Grays Avenue suddenly finds cars coming at them where the avenue becomes one-way. Drivers must turn onto smaller streets and make their way back to the avenue. Under the plan, a section of 48th street would be eliminated, and Grays Avenue would be fully opened to west-bound drivers.

The 49th Street Connector focus area recommends, as its name implies, improvements that would turn 49th Street into a major, greened thoroughfare through the area. The street links other significant parts of the plan: Baltimore Avenue’s commercial district, the Kingsessing Recreation Center and the proposed boat launch and trail head of the Lower Schuylkill Master Plan, at the intersection of South 49th Street and Botanic Avenue.

Mostly, the street improvements include trees, new sidewalks and pedestrian lighting. But one stretch of the street, where trains cross at grade, has been closed for decades by CSX with Jersey barriers and fencing. PIDC is working with CSX to replace all of that with a signalized train crossing, Meloney said.

The draft will be presented to the public at an April 8th open house at Quorum, The Science Center’s Space, 3711 Market St., from 6:30 to 8:30pm.  The plan will also be posted on-line here after next week’s open house, and comments can be given electronically, or emailed directly to planner Meloney at The comment period closes June 1.

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