Councilman Squilla: realtors’ development plan ‘feels like it was a bait and switch’

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“I feel sort of responsible for it,” said the councilman. “There’s nobody else to blame but me on the legislation.”

Midwood attorney Peter Kelsen discusses the project with residents.

Representatives from Midwood Investment & Development and Philadelphia City Councilman Mark Squilla gathered for a special Passyunk Square Civic Association meeting last Wednesday night for an explainer about how plans for a proposed five-story, 70-unit apartment complex at the southeast corner of 9th and Washington — which was approved by residents in 2015 — became plans for an eight-story, 182-unit complex three years later despite not having been voted on by residents.

According to Squilla, when developers from Midwood originally proposed the site, it was zoned CMX2, which didn’t allow for the five-story, 70-unit project to be built. Typically in situations like these when developers want to build a project that zoning code doesn’t allow for, they’ll file a variance to the city’s zoning board of adjustments for permission to build the project after presenting it to neighbors.

However, according to Squilla, he and residents at the time agreed that for this particular project, it would be best not to make developers file a variance to fit within the zoning code, but rather to change the actual zoning code itself from CMX2 to CMX3, which would allow the project to be built. To change zoning in a particular area, legislation must go through city council. Squilla proposed the legislation and it passed, giving Midwood the right of way to build the project.

However, now that the zoning was changed to CMX3, Midwood is permitted to build a project considerably bigger than the one it initially proposed. So the company changed its plans. Instead of a five-story building with 70 dwelling units, it opted for an eight-story building with 182 units. Because the eight-story project fits within current zoning (now that legislation was passed to change it), Midwood no longer has to ask the community or the city for a variance; the company can simply build the project since it’s within the parameters of CMX3. Although it wasn’t required by city law, Midwood opted to appear before the community anyway to help quell residents’ anger about the project.

Squilla and Midwood’s attorney, Peter Kelsen, clashed at the meeting.

“It just feels like it was a bait and switch,” Squilla said at the meeting. “The feeling is now that I was played or maybe that the community was played a little bit in the process.”

“This is not a bait and switch,” Kelsen responded. “I’m not so sure that the community will find this to be an offensive project.”

Still, Squilla blamed himself for the end result.

“I feel sort of responsible for it,” said the councilman. “There’s nobody else to blame but me on the legislation.”

Squilla and PSCA president Sarah Anton both agreed the reason they thought changing the zoning was a better option than making Midwood file for a variance was because it was in line with what the city planning commission recommended in its 2035 plan for Washington Avenue.

Residents at the meeting scoffed at the plan and were generally displeased with Midwood’s handling of the situation. Many said they felt misled, and weren’t at all happy with the new project.

“This is Philadelphia,” said resident Jeff Brown. “These are two- and three-story row house neighborhoods. Your eight stories — you’re going to be blocking the sun, blocking the view. The trees are dwarfed by the eight stories. If you really want to get input from the neighborhood, listen to what the neighbors are saying. This is not New York City. You really got to consider where you are and who you’re dealing with.”

“I really have problems with [the] development habits here in Philadelphia,” said resident Mark Strasbaugh. “Must we become like other cities and basically make it so expensive so that people have to leave? We’re talking about people who have lived in neighborhoods like this all their lives, elderly people. They don’t have that kind of money.”

Squilla said that because Midwood is effectively building the project by right and because the 30-day appeal period is over (Midwood submitted for the permit on Sept. 27, so the 30-day appeal period ended Oct. 27), there’s no way to stop the project from happening.

“I’m just hoping they’re willing to make some changes that would be acceptable to the community,” Squilla said. “I think the problem is that the development was changed [and] submitted without reaching out to anybody. They didn’t reach out to the community and say ‘we’re thinking about making a couple of changes.’”

Squilla continued to lament the project throughout the meeting: “It seems right now the tension you can feel is because people feel like they were duped, and honestly I felt the same way. It’s unfortunate that it happened that way whether the intent was there or not. That’s the perception.”

PSCA vice president Andrew Stober echoed Squilla’s disappointment to the Midwood representatives.

“You’re in a position right now where you’re having significant long-term reputational risk in the city of Philadelphia,” he said. “Whether this is by right or not what you can legally do is different from what your reputation is and how you’ll be able to move forward generally in the city of Philadelphia with other civic groups who talk to each other, with Councilman Squilla, with other council people. We hope that you’re hearing that because what we’ve heard so far … is not building trust with the community.”

One resident asked Kelsen if there was any possibility of returning to the original, community-supported five-story plan. His answer was blunt.

“The answer is ‘no,’” he said. “I’m not in the business to come here tonight to negotiate the size and scale of the building.”

In addition to the 182 residential units, the project also features 16,000 square-feet of retail space on the first floor, and 132 parking spaces, 72 of which will be available to the public (the remaining 60 will be for residents). The complex will consist of one-bedroom apartments (60 percent of dwelling units), studios (20 percent) and two-bedroom apartments (20 percent). According to Midwood CEO John Usdan, who was present at the meeting, the starting rate for studios will be between $1,400 and $1,500 a month and be geared toward people entering the workforce making $55,000 annually.

According to Stober, there will be more meetings in the future about the project, but exact times and dates have yet to be determined.