OCF and JKRP Architects presented the project’s variances to residents last week.
Dozens of South Philly residents convened at St. Charles Senior Center last week to weigh in on the potential multi-development complex being proposed by OCF Realty in the block-long site of the Frankford Chocolate Factory building at 2100 Washington Ave.
During a special South of South Neighbors Association zoning committee meeting, residents of the Graduate Hospital, Point Breeze and other surrounding areas cast votes regarding whether residential zoning is appropriate on this stretch of Washington Avenue west of Broad Street.
The meeting, led by the zoning committee and members of OCF and JKRP Architects, focused on parcel A of the project, which encompasseses the north side of the 21st to 22nd block and will potentially consist of two rows of 2,880 square-foot townhomes with 22 on each row and each including a one-car garage, totaling 44 new houses selling for more than $800,000 each.
In its latest design drafts, the planning team is facing three variances, including not meeting handicap parking and bicycle spaces requirements, which, the team says, will be resolved by implementing these elements in an upcoming version.
But, as explained by OCF and JKRP, the major refusal surrounds rezoning.
“We’re not asking to change the zoning,” explained Liz Scott, vice president of development and construction at OCF Realty. “We are asking for the one refusal which is use-residential, to be given a variance to allow us to not abide by that one refusal.”
Currently, the blocks west of broad on Washington are deemed ICMX zoning, or Industrial Commercial Mixed-Use District, which is “intended to accommodate commercial and low-impact industrial uses,” according to the city’s zoning code.
The group will be asking the zoning board of adjustments in September to redesignate the area as CMX (3), meaning Community and Center City Commercial Mixed-Use Districts, and IRMX, meaning Industrial Residential Mixed-Use District. The combination of codes allows for residential, retail and service uses.
“We have designed this project to meet either of the proposed codes that the city has considered and to reduce the number of variances required to build 44 new townhomes in the neighborhood” Scott said. “And we have reduced it down to a single refusal.”
Scott explained that, at the present time, OCF and JKRP are not asking the city to remap the entire area, which would entail an ordinance passed through council.
Before the developers present in front of the Civic Design Review in early September and the ZBA on Sept. 12, SOSNA, along with other community organizations, will craft a letter to the ZBA expressing their stances on the refusal requests based on votes. During the meeting, votes were made on paper and results will be public by the time of the ZBA hearing.
The developers explained the former chocolate factory has not been active in half-a-century, saying that multiple reports deemed the structure unsafe.
According to Jose Hernandez, the principal at JKRP Architects, a structure can be often be “salvaged” if its roof has been appropriately maintained, but this was not the case for the South Philly factory.
“There was a lot of discussion about the chocolate factory and what it was and, unfortunately, the condition it’s in — what’s led to what’s happened with the demolition,” Hernandez said. “I just kind of wanted to point out — our firm has worked on numerous types of projects, and our firm has a strong experience level and expertise in residential … from townhomes to new construction to adaptive reuse.”
But, throughout the meeting, several residents voiced concerns about the complex, which, aside from the 44 townhomes, also plans to feature a couple grocery stores, a parking garage with 120 spaces and apartment rentals in other areas of the massive space, including inside parcel B, which has not been presented to the zoning committee or ZBA yet.
“I am opposed to changing the zoning from commercial to residential on any part of Washington Avenue,” said resident Jerome Whack during the public portion of the meeting. “I think Washington Avenue should be left for commercial use. I think there are other projects that would be better served in that space … a facility that would employ people in this community”
Although the developers say the new complex will integrate well within the neighborhood, residents say the project gives the impression of a gated community, secluding itself from the rest of the South-of-South region.
But, the developers explained the complex will encompass community green spaces, including a potential dog park, which Scott says has been in demand throughout this part of South Philly for almost the past decade.
Earlier in the evening, Scott stressed that, since its inception, the project has aimed to preserve the character of the residential street, keep residents in the neighborhood and “do the right thing on Washington Avenue.”
Nonetheless, residents say the project needs to be “tremendously toned down,” as they encouraged the community to take a stand against yet another construction project breaking ground in this area, especially considering new homeowners continue to receive 10-year tax abatements on newly developed properties.
“These people are coming into the neighborhood, and they’re building these humongous complexes, and the only people benefitting are the builders and the new people coming in,” Whack said. “I’ve been down here for all these years, and I’ve been paying my property taxes for over 40 years. And lastly, when they build this project, this is going to impact on probably a three- or four-square block area. In other words, the people who are down here now are going to see an increase in their property taxes. I don’t think this project should go on.”
“The majority of people who are living here with the tax abatement are ready to move out and they lived here without paying no taxes,” added resident Dianne H. Mitchell. “Soon, there’s not going to be any additional South Philadelphia left in South Philly.”