Zoning board approves variances for student housing proposal at 40th & Pine

By a vote of 4-1 Wednesday afternoon, the Zoning Board of Adjustment approved a handful of variances for developer Jonathan Weiss’s proposed 122-unit apartment building at the corner of 40th and Pine streets, where a registered historic building is currently twiddling its proverbial thumbs.

The zoning board held a first hearing on the requested variances in August, but twice had to continue. The application was submitted under the old zoning code, in an R5-A district. The developer sought variances for number of units (2 units permitted, 122 proposed), number of parking spots (122 spaces required, 0 proposed), and maximum height (35 feet permitted, 58 ½ proposed), among others.

The University of Pennsylvania owns the historic building, and the proposed replacement would be marketed to graduate students. The Planning Commission voted to approve the zoning relief request back in September.

A group of residents from the area, represented by attorney Paul Boni, objected to the zoning relief, particularly the size and the lack of parking.

At one point in Wednesday’s hearing, Boni and witness Mary Daniels—a member of Woodland Terrace Homeowners Association, which opposes the project—presented to the zoning board petitions with signatures they said were gathered online and through neighborhood canvassing. ZBA Chair Lynette Brown-Sow asked why some of the signers were from other states and countries, and then suggested that the handwriting on one of the petitions looked suspiciously uniform. Brown-Sow also refused to identify another of Boni’s witnesses, real estate broker Christopher O’Donnell, as an expert. She said that if Boni wanted him certified as an expert witness, he should have submitted his curriculum vitae and other documentation to the zoning board ahead of time.

In his closing statement, Penn’s attorney Matt McClure argued that the zoning classification of the property was out of step with the land use of the surrounding area, and that the proposed building would be appropriately contextual. Paul Boni argued that Penn hadn’t proven that developing the property under the current zoning by right would create a hardship.

Greg Pastore was the lone ZBA member to vote against granting the variances.

“I felt that it was an uphill battle to present the case today,” said Paul Boni, after the hearing. “I felt that some members of the board were hostile to our attempt to present the case, not all of them. I’m thankful for the one vote that we received in our favor. I’m convinced that Penn did not establish that there’s a hardship attendant to this property, and that they’re not entitled to the variances that they sought today. I respect every member of the zoning board, but I feel that the majority of members made a grave error today.”

“We are very happy with the result,” said Matt McClure, after the hearing.

Some of the neighborhood residents in opposition plan to appeal the ZBA decision to the Court of Common Pleas.

The Historic Commission approved the building’s demolition in May, but Boni and the same group of residents appealed that decision to the Board of L&I Review, which has held a series of hearings on the issue.

Contact the reporter at jbrey@planphilly.com and follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey

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