Zoning Feedback: Community Development Corporations weigh in

In Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, community development corporations (CDCs) do much of the heavy lifting of redevelopment, and play a major role in stabilizing teetering neighborhoods while laying the groundwork for private growth. Interviews with representatives from four different CDCs—Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation (OARC), the Fairmount Community Development Corporation, the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation, and the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC)—revealed general satisfaction with the code revision. But the needs of Philadelphia neighborhoods vary, often block by block, and along with them, concerns about the new code’s potential affects on the development process.

Stabilizing residential neighborhoods has received much attention from CDCs. NKCDC was originally a housing assistance organization, and it still fights to help people who are at risk of losing their homes to keep them. And OARC was a driving force behind the stabilization of Oak Lane, and its ongoing redevelopment.

“Ten years ago we had a long-term vacant housing problem,” said Jack Kitchen, OARC’s president and CEO. “We had 350 to 400 homes that had been vacant long-term. I geared up originally thinking that we’d have to do 70 homes a year to get ahead of this curve. As we moved into the first block, houses could not be bought and renovated and sold without a huge loss. We knew going in was what we had to do was find a way to drive values. We went into this block and bought a HUD foreclosure for $25 or $30K. It cost us $60K to develop it, and we sold it in the $60s.”

“We did three houses on the street. After we did the first house, nobody showed up. After the second, when the price went up to $80, $85K, other investors came in, and could turn it for a $5 or $10K profit.”

Once private developers started to follow them, Kitchen said, the pace of redevelopment markedly picked up. With rising house values, residents were able to refinance their homes to install mechanical upgrades. Houses were selling for as much as $180,000, according to Kitchen, and the number of vacant homes has dropped from between 350 and 400 to 77 as of early November.

In Fairmount, a neighborhood with high real estate costs, residential development is out of the reach of its CDC.

“It’s too expensive to buy and rehab property,” says Rebecca Johnson, executive director of the Fairmount CDC.

But healthy neighborhoods also need healthy commerce, and fostering commercial development has emerged as part of the work of Philadelphia’s CDCs. After all, residents need—and want—activity that suits their neighborhood. Here, zoning has a big part to play.

“Can you promote a good retail mix?” asked Johnson, who is a former land-use attorney. “My response is that you can’t exclude anything unconstitutionally. The job is to recruit the kind of businesses you want.”

Johnson said that overlays have been a problem for Fairmount and Brewerytown.

“The West Girard special controls district prohibits everything. They were put into place to stop or to control development. It’s better to have zoning of-right,” Johnson said.

If Johnson could choose a base district for the commercial corridors of Fairmount, she said she’d pick CMX-2.5, which reflects many of the traits of the old Neighborhood Commercial Corridor overlay. “I like the idea of pedestrian-friendliness, but I’m not sure how the [CTR] overlay will affect those.”

The current zoning code, Johnson said, “was in my mind the absence of law. How we actually enforce the zoning law in this city is not the same as in the rest of the state. It’s: have you talked to all the right people? do you have neighborhood support?”

Nonetheless, the Fairmount CDC wants to get a small supermarket to open on Girard Avenue and Johnson said that if they must use available roundabout means, they will.

“I’m not worried about it if the community supports it. If we can get the variance, why not?”

OARC works on projects quite substantial in scope, and Kitchen said his organization is often hamstrung trying to comply with all the city agencies that oversee development.

“It’s clearly confusing,” Kitchen says. “Try to draw a flow chart to it. Traditionally, you end up with a plate of spaghetti. I don’t think it’s as complicated as everybody tries to make it. I don’t think there needs to be as many processes to get approvals. I meet with small developers, and very large developers, and the common comment that comes out of them is that it’s easier to do business any place but Philly.”

As with many redevelopment projects in Philadelphia, OARC’s work has often required variances, and Kitchen says that the ZBA process, while sometimes arduous, usually results in a fairly speedy final decision.

“Things that take place right at the zoning board hearings, that process right then and there has pretty much been flawless. We don’t always get our way with things, but the process is decisive,” Kitchen said.

“The permitting process, the review process—I think that there’s way to much redundancy. We’re doing a streetscape on Ogontz Avenue. You make a change, and you have to give 12 or 15 copies of plans. The only way I was able to effectively do it was to get the department heads in one room at one time, to get a 30-day timeline. It shouldn’t have to go through 15 or 20 stops to get approved,” Kitchen said.

Slowing down such projects, he said, delays not only the finished product but also delays putting people to work on those projects at a time when work can be hard to come by.

In the neighborhood immediately to the east of Fairmount, Penelope Giles, the founder and executive director of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation, hopes to see markedly more development along the Ridge Avenue corridor running northwest from Broad Street to Girard Avenue.

“We’re encouraging very high density along the fringes of the corridor, but along the corridor, it definitely has to be mixed-use. We would advocate for developers to be able to build four and five stories versus the standard 35 feet along Ridge Ave.,” Giles said.

Much of Ridge Avenue is currently vacant or blighted, with only a handful of service businesses: a couple Chinese restaurants, a pizza shop, a dollar store, a small grocer, a corner bar, a preschool. Many residential buildings are boarded up. Numerous vacant lots have been greened by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, marked by their now-iconic fencing. Still, Francisville is squarely in the northward march of development from Center City, and the eastward march from Fairmount. While welcomed, Giles says of-right development may take power away from neighborhood groups.

“There’s a lot of development going on where because the fabric of the neighborhood is so old, most of it requires variances. They’re variances for stuff that could be done over the counter. One of the good things [about the new zoning code] is trying to simplify the process and clean it up. On the other hand, that takes the community input out of the process, which can be a problem when dealing with developers that have no concern or eye for design or quality. They’re going to do the minimum, everything by right. We have a lot of developers that are developing by right, and the projects are not quality,” Giles said.

Quality development means different things in different circumstances. Frankford Avenue has a history of blight, but one that is being overcome by the street’s reinvention as an arts corridor. Like the overlays in Fairmount, rezoning and special controls designed to block certain kinds of development deemed nuisances by the surrounding neighborhoods.

“Back in the ’80s, when the clubs and strip joints were coming to Delaware Avenue, part of Frankford was remapped to residential. It was a way to control business coming onto the corridor. Now there are places on the corridor where developer can build single-family homes as of right,” said Sarah Corlett, who until November was the economic development director of NKCDC. She said the North Delaware Avenue Special District Controls are a problem.

“If you want to open a restaurant or a coffee shop—which is classified as an entertainment use—you have to go through ZBA. We need restaurants on Frankford Avenue,” Corlett said.

With the success of the Frankford Avenue Arts Corridor, real estate values have risen, and NKCDC can no longer afford to guide development by purchasing buildings and then determining their uses. Corlett believes that remapping all of Frankford Avenue as CMX-2.5 will facilitate the street’s continued growth, as will the code’s removal of the special controls that govern the neighborhood.

“The truth is,” said Giles, of the Francisville NDC, “that we’re not really going to know the impact of this new zoning code and what the snags are until it’s actually applied, and we’re actually living it. Then we’ll discover what the problems are with it. It’s been a long time since the Zoning Code has been revised, so I’m hoping it’ll be at least 90% good.”

Contact the reporter at ngilewicz@planphilly.com

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