Penn Treaty Development News
Last week Spirit News reported on a rendering we obtained that appeared to show plans for a hotel in the lot next to Penn Treaty Park. We reached out to Sugarhouse Casino and Councilman Mark Squilla to see if they knew anything about a possible large-scale development. Both Sugarhouse and the councilman denied any knowledge of such plans, but neither confirmed that a hotel was out of the question for the future. We were puzzled.
Shortly after our story ran, Spirit News was contacted by George Polgar, a representative for Shovel Ready Projects LLC., who provided us with another rendering. The drawing he sent us shows a 19-townhome complex on 1143 North Delaware Ave.
“That is what is going to be built there,” Polgar told Spirit News. “We have the eight acres of Penn Treaty Park as our front lawn.” Polgar says there will be a driveway with an entrance on Delaware Avenue and each unit will have a garage.
Shovel Ready Projects is a large-scale developer based in Northern Liberties that specializes in “by right” projects. “We buy everything by right. It’s all CMX-3,” Polgar said. “Our company is called Shovel Ready for a reason. Our motto is buy today, build tomorrow. All you have to do is pull construction permits. That’s a huge advantage to builders.”
The term CMX-3 is a zoning reference that allows for commercial and residential units to coexist on a parcel of land. Numbers are assigned to the zoning to indicate the size of the building permitted. CMX-3 is a mid-level category and generally the requirements for this type of zoning are pretty standard for all CMX-3 properties in Philadelphia. However, 1143 N. Delaware Avenue falls into a special district.
According to PlanPhilly, a bill that was introduced on April 11, 2013 by Councilman Squilla grants special “floor area and height bonuses” in exchange for the developer contributing to surrounding infrastructure like public transit or street improvements. On page 8 of the bill, Table 14-702-2 lists eight aspects that developers could do to gain height bonuses for projects in the Central Delaware Overlay district (CDO).
The summary reads:
Amending Title 14 of The Philadelphia Code, entitled “Zoning and Planning,” by repealing and replacing Section 14-507, entitled “/CDO, Central Delaware Riverfront Overlay District,” to provide for new special controls, and by amending Section 14-702, entitled “Floor Area Bonuses,” to provide for floor area and height bonuses for the Central Delaware Riverfront, and to make adjustments to the criteria for bonuses relating to public open space, transit improvements and green development, all under certain terms and conditions.
The largest height bonus of 72 feet could be granted if the developer invests in public transit, street extension or a trail, like the upcoming Delaware River Trail that will link Sugarhouse and Penn Treaty Park to South Philly. The trail would run behind the development at 1143 N. Delaware Ave, but the drawing we were furnished didn’t have the trail on it. Polgar also did not mention any height bonuses granted, or any potential investment in the trail project. Councilman Squilla told Spirit News last week that the money was already there for the trail’s completion and he expects construction on this section to happen soon.
An article from Philadelphia Magazine last month featured one of Shovel Ready Projects’ speculative developments at what is now infamously known as the “Former Trump Site” at Delaware Avenue and Spring Garden Street along the river. The rendering published in that article shows a 41-townhome complex. Polgar told Philly Mag that he believed each unit could fetch $1 million dollars.
The article states that for a cool $12 million “this project could be yours” and explains that Shovel Ready has done all the prep work, including “preliminary engineering, zoning permits, site acquisition and preparation.” Shovel Ready Projects does take care of the zoning permits, but when a project is done “by right,” the process of obtaining a zoning permit is much different than if the project would require a zoning variance. One process requires input from the community, while the other does not.
Zoning is usually broken down between residential, commercial or a mixture of both. Parcels also have distinct zoning on what types of structures can be erected. Height restriction and floor space are generally two factors. Zoning is complicated and each property can be zoned uniquely depending on variances granted to prior owners. Zoning variances are required for builders seeking to build outside of what the parcel is currently zoned for. However if the builder chooses to construct within the current zoning and build by right, a variance isn’t needed.
RCO’s (Registered Community Organizations) like FNA (Fishtown Neighbors Association) have zoning committees that hold public meetings on zoning variances within the community. The FNA Zoning Committee requires developers to present a plan at the meeting, then the public is able to directly question the developer or their representative. Finally, all representatives of the party seeking the variance are asked to leave the room and the public has one more discussion before casting their vote for or against the variance.
The zoning committee has no real authority, but serves as an intermediary between the ZBA (Zoning Board of Adjustments) and the community. There is a general belief that the ZBA will strongly consider the public’s vote for or against the project and vote in line with the RCO. Unfortunately this is not always the case: Spirit News recently reported that the ZBA has consistently gone against the voting results of FNA Zoning Committee hearings.
Since by right construction requires no zoning variance, there is no zoning committee meeting and no formal line for community input. According to Polgar, he has not spoken with FNA or Friends of Penn Treaty Park. “I wasn’t specifically involved in any discussions with neighbors associations or anything like that,” Polgar said. Polgar added that they do try their best to work with the community on most projects.
Polgar says his company could have designed something much larger than the planned 19 townhomes, but decided the townhome plan would be the best investment. “I think we could build a 20-story high rise by right and that zoning is still in place, it’s just that you have to go through all the engineering and designing specs,” Polgar said. “The appetite in Philadelphia is all about townhomes.”
According to Polgar, the project is very close to breaking ground. Polgar admits this project has not been finalized, but if everything goes as planned, he says this project could potentially begin this spring.
Spirit News reached out to Matt Karp who chairs the FNA zoning committee. He confirmed that no one had contacted him about this project, which is not required by the city.
“We haven’t been contacted with any construction projects as this seems to be allowed per the city’s review,” Karp said. According to Karp, he had not seen the drawing Polgar provided us, but did show us another drawing of another similar, but different, complex on the same lot on 1143 North Delaware Ave.
According to Karp, there is no way for the community to voice concerns over this project. “Right now it doesn’t look like the community will be able to chime in as the city has given a use permit to this project,” Karp said “Their next steps would be to get a construction permit and that does not have a public process.”
Shade is always a concern when building in the city, and shading experts are often asked to create renderings of how the building will cast shadows on nearby properties. According to Karp, CMX-3 zoned parcels like 1143 Delaware Ave. are not generally subjected to shade analysis, even if the building is next to a park. “For larger zoning designations like CMX-4 and CMX-5, sky plane restrictions are in place, but that is typically protecting the light and air getting to a street and not a park,” Karp said.
Spirit News also spoke to AJ Thomson, President of the Friends of Penn Treaty Park. Thomson seemed less than enthusiastic about the upcoming project.
“It’s sad that our waterfront is subject to such piecemeal, directionless development,” Thomson said. “While the lot has sat fallow for too long and is now a homeless encampment to a large extent, a more comprehensive plan for the area between the park and the casino should be advanced rather than this ‘because we can’ idea.”
Thomson praised other near by commercial developments for having a positive impact on the area. “SugarHouse has been a tremendous addition to the waterfront and they are an economic driver for the area. Along with the Fillmore and other commercial investment, to see this site turned into a Baker’s Bay type complex is sad.”
Any developments on 1143 N. North Delaware Ave. would mean no chance of ever expanding Penn Treaty Park.
At the same time we learned that construction was going to happen, Mayor Kenney unveiled a 90 million dollar park to be built over I-95. We reached out to the mayor’s office about the proposed development at 1143 N. Delaware Ave. and what the community can do about by right construction.
“If a resident believes that the permit was issued in error, then administrative appeal may be made within 30 days of constructive notice, and if the resident can appeal a loss before the administrative board to the Court of Common Pleas,” Ajeenah Amir, a spokesperson for the city’s Planning and Development Dept., said. “While the city encourages the developer to talk with the community, the Zoning Code does not require this interaction. All RCOs that provided an email address (in response to Planning’s request for such) receive a daily report of Zoning permits issued. Every permit must be posted and failure to do may extend appeal period, as per L&I policy.”
Spirit News will continue to follow this story and provide updates on any developments on this site.