Members of the Washington Square West Civic Association held a virtual meeting Tuesday, May 11th with potential developers to discuss whether it will lend its approval to a proposed project slated for 11th and Walnut Street in center city Philadelphia.
According to information released by the association, the proposed project consists of an 18-story commercial structure, which would include the demolition of 3 existing structures.
During the meeting, which was open to members of the public who wished to participate virtually, the developers conducted a presentation explaining the scope of the plans which have been revised several times.
“This is a project that they originally brought to us in 2019 and through prolonged and protracted negotiations with Thomas Jefferson University on air rights and different helicopter and flight pattern issues, they have arrived here [several] years later with a revised design,” said Alex Rice of Washington Square West.
The property in question is comprised of 1101 - 1107 Walnut street, and is approximately 10,000 square feet.
The developers originally planned for a 23- story building but after discussions with Thomas Jefferson University which had concerns about the intended height and the impact it could potentially have on the use of their helicopter, the developers were asked to reduce their original height plans.
Other concerns raised were off-street parking, location of the proposed loading dock and sanitation questions which were resolved with the purchase of the adjacent properties which Rice called a “big plus” to the original plans.
Rice said that the meeting between the developers and the Washington Squire West Civic Association and other members of the community was the third such meeting for the project.
“We suggested to them that they should speak with Thomas Jefferson University to review the project because we realized that right next door was a helipad where [Jefferson] helicopters land bringing in patients, donor organs and that type of thing,” said Rice.
“In their conversations with Jefferson, they [the developers] realized that they could not build as tall as they were proposing because they would be in the path of the helicopters and so they met with them and realized that they had to significantly reduce the height of the building.”
This change impacted the overall height of the building “so they tried to acquire the property adjacent to the buildings next to them so they could try to make up for their loss of square footage horizontally instead of vertically,” said Rice.
This process took over a year to expand the footprint and then the developers returned to the civic association with the revised plans.
“It was just an informal proposal to let us know what was going on. It wasn’t a formal presentation, it was an informal presentation,” Rice said.
During this meeting, the developers explained that in trying to make the project work, they ran into “minor areas in the zoning code that they would have problems complying with so, what they’ve done, and the project team will tell you more about this was, instead of going for variances, was to introduce legislation through Councilman Squilla to create ordinances that would become part of the zoning code,” Rice said.
“It’s just a more efficient way of getting to the same place but I want to add that it does not exclude all of the other involvement and engagement that going to the ZBA entails. It doesn’t allow them to bypass the RCO [Registered Community Organization] or the community. It’s just a different means of getting there.”
“As we walk through developments that we go through, there are different ways to do a project,” said Councilman Mark Squilla during an interview concerning the proposed legislation. “One is through an ordinance process where you create an ordinance and then you work with the developer and the community to come up with guidelines for that development,” he said.
Squilla said that the 11th and Walnut Street development was a “by-right” development which means they had a full right to proceed with the project as they pleased.
“They didn’t need any support from me as a council person, they didn’t need any support from Jefferson and didn’t need any support from the community but because they were willing to work with us and meet with Jefferson and redesign the building, that created a variance for their project.”
The variances for the project were because of the change in height requested by Jefferson and this cost the developers years in redesigning their original plans, but they agreed to do so. However, by doing this, they ran into other zoning issues which required variances that likely would not have occurred if they had kept to their original plans and ignored the input of the community and the concerns of Jefferson.
Squilla said that developers are always asked to meet with the community to get their input. Brett Feldman, attorney for the joint-development project, began the presentation with an introduction and overview of the developers Peter Abrams of Abram Realty and Development and Tom Bok of Bok Development Group.
“This is a project that has been going on now for over two years and we came before the Zoning Committee back in 2019 and we were very pleased to have your support back then,” said Feldman.
“We went to Civic Design Review and it went really well and, interestingly, out of the Zoning Committee Meeting, one of your members said, ‘why don’t you talk to Thomas Jefferson University to just try to coordinate some of the construction items and things like that’ and we did,” he said.
“That led us on a very long discussion with TJU about their helicopters and their concerns about the height of our building which back then was, what, 23-stories.”
“We have spent I guess a year and a half, two years with TJU and city government and we’ve done our best to keep civic involvement as well with the councilman.”
After countless discussions, numerous meetings, revisions of plans for the development, the joint developers returned to the community.
“Fortunately, we have an agreement with TJU on the height, we’ve significantly reduced the height of the project as you will see, but we have been out here now for two years on this project and we’re really excited to have the opportunity now to show you what we’ve got after all that work with all of our different partners and related entities in the neighborhood,” Feldman said.
Members of Washington Square West are now reviewing the revised plans and after several years of negotiations and revisions, it’s hoped that the long-sought development on this site will finally begin before years end.