A last-ditch effort by residents of the Italian Market neighborhood to prevent a 9th Street curb cut at a new development didn’t go as they’d hoped at last week’s Civic Design Review meeting, which was the second and final meeting of the CDR process. After meeting with both the developers and representatives from the Passyunk Square Civic Association, the CDR board made it clear that it is “not in any way advocating curb cuts on 9th Street as a precedent,” said the board’s chair, Nancy Rogo Trainer. However, representatives from PSCA were looking for more. Specifically, they wanted a definitive statement from the CDR board stating that the curb cut should be placed on Washington Avenue instead of 9th Street, contrary to what the plans of the developer, Manhattan-based Midwood Investment and Development, currently indicate.
“I was hoping for a stronger recommendation specifically around moving the curb cuts from 9th Street to Washington,” said PSCA President Sarah Anton. “[The board’s] recommendation was softer than I hoped for.”
As of right now, PSCA is unclear of what its options are going forward.
Earlier this month, Councilman Mark Squilla introduced legislation to ban future curb cuts on 9th Street between Catharine and Federal streets, but it’ll take some time before the legislation can actually pass. According to Squilla’s legislative aide, Sean McMonagle, the bill has to go to a Rules Committee hearing, which isn’t until June 11. If the bill is approved by the committee, it will then have to be voted on twice by the full City Council to pass, then it goes to the mayor for his signature, which he gets not less than 10 days to review.
“We’re very happy that the councilman had introduced the ordinance,” said PSCA Vice President Andrew Stober. “We hope that the ordinance will prevent the developer from putting the curb cut on 9th Street.”
One potential last option to stop the curb cut could be to keep the Department of Streets from signing off on the plans, something it has yet to do.
“Streets has not signed off on the final design of the plans as of yet,” McMonagle said.
In an attempt to quell residents’ frustration over the location of the parking garage entrance, the developer’s zoning attorney, Peter Kelsen, brought up Guy DiMartino, representative from Traffic Planning and Design, who conducted a traffic study comparing the results of putting the curb cut on 9th Street vs. Washington Avenue. DiMartino conceded that placing a curb cut on 9th Street would indeed impede vehicular traffic in the Italian Market because it would force drivers coming from north of the development to drive three blocks south of the location along 10th Street and make a left onto Wharton Street before they could come back up 9th, taking them through the southern portion of the Italian Market to arrive in the parking garage. What residents likely didn’t consider, DiMartino said, is that if the garage entrance was indeed placed on Washington Avenue as they wish, a similar problem would occur for drivers exiting the building.
“All exiting traffic would then be forced to then turn right out of the site onto Washington Avenue, and it would create a similar situation which has been discussed with the current application – that the current access traffic would be forced to cut through other neighborhoods maybe north of Washington Avenue through the Italian Market in that section to get oriented to the proper direction,” he said. “So in taking all that into consideration…there is little to no operational differences between the two scenarios.”
A big reason why the CDR board asked Midwood to come back, Trainer said, was so the company could meet with the city’s streets department and the neighborhood and discuss the possibility of relocating the curb cut on Washington Avenue. The development team’s attorney, Kelsen, made it clear to the board that those meetings didn’t happen since the last CDR meeting, which perturbed Trainer.
“When we give you time to make a good-faith effort, to go back and talk to folks and see if something could be worked out,” Trainer said, “we should be able to expect that those meetings and that good-faith effort to reconsider something actually happened between meetings.”
Kelsen argued that those meetings had taken place numerous times before the April CDR meeting so there was no reason to hold them again.
“I think it’s important to note that this is not a developer blithely just walking away from comments,” he said. “This has been an engagement process that has been going on since 2014 with the community and the city.”
Because the CDR has no authority to block projects, the neighbors association wasn’t necessarily expecting the process to bring the project to a halt. However, the neighbors association was hoping for a clearer anti-9th Street curb cut statement from the CDR board in a longshot attempt to potentially stir up more controversy around the project and derail it somehow.
At last month’s meeting, Kelsen said the entrance must go on 9th Street at the behest of the streets department and the City Planning Commission. That was corroborated by planning commission staffer Alex Smith, who spoke at the meeting.
“Staff believes that the curb cuts on South 9th Street are the best solution for this site, and while we do understand the community’s concerns about 9th Street being broken up by two curb cuts, the staff recommends that the applicant continue to work with the city and the community,” said Smith. Smith provided two reasons why the planning commission didn’t want the parking garage entrance on Washington Avenue. One, there are plans for a bike lane on the 800 block of Washington Ave., which in the future might make cars entering and exiting out of the garage more dangerous for bicyclists and drivers; and two, the commission doesn’t want people making left turns across two lanes of traffic and a median to drive west along the corridor as they enter or exit the garage.
The PSCA wasn’t buying either of his arguments.
“A driveway on Washington Avenue could easily be accommodated with a bike lane,” Stober said at the first meeting. “We have parking-protected bike lanes along Market Street and JFK in the heart of Center City that accommodate driveways far busier than this one ever will be there.”
Regarding Smith’s second point about drivers crossing over the median and two lanes of traffic: “The idea of left-hand turns off of Washington [Avenue] has a simple solution: a [raised] median. First of all, there are currently cars parked in that median that would preclude that – a sort of naturally occurring, culturally significant kind of median that operates in South Philadelphia…but also a simple 6-inch raised curb would prevent those left-hand turns.”
Stober also argued that the development would spark precedence for other developers who wanted to build on that corridor.
“Other developers will come to the city and say, ‘Well, you provided a curb cut for the Midwood development on 9th Street, why don’t we get a curb cut?” Stober said.
Trainer found this argument most persuasive.
“It does seem to me that the issue of precedence is an important one and that that’s something that needs to be considered here because I can see where there’s a slippery slope,” she said. “Regardless of how this project turns out, I’m hoping that there will be some discussion about precedent in the market that’s a broader discussion about the market in general.”
The development had been controversial in the community ever since November because of what neighbors feel was the developers’ taking advantage of a zoning change that allowed the developer, Midwood Investment & Development, to build a considerably larger building than was initially proposed. The plans initially called for a five-story, 70-unit apartment complex. However, when Councilman Squilla had legislation passed that changed the zoning of the parcel from CMX2 to CMX3, Midwood upped the project to an eight-story, 182-unit complex, sparking community outrage. Since then, PSCA has found a way to persuade Midwood into meeting them in the middle. Currently, the project stands at six stories and 157 living units.