Image: 48th and Chester development is test case for affordable housing units

Rendering of the proposed development at 48th and Chester (former neighborhood dog park.)

When Councilmember Jamie Gauthier announced she would oppose the zoning variance needed to build a planned apartment complex at 48th and Chester Avenue – which an anti-gentrification group had opposed by asking for samples of nearby residents’ feces – some in local media speculated that the project had met its end. As it turns out, getting variances from the Zoning Board of Adjustments can be something of a crapshoot.

The Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustments unanimously voted on June 2 to grant the variance needed for a planned apartment complex at 48th and Chester Avenue. The ZBA vote came after a virtual Zoom hearing on the variance request that lasted more than two hours and had dozens of neighbors of the project volunteering to testify. The June 2 hearing itself was a follow up to an earlier ZBA hearing held on April 7.

A representative for the City Planning Commission also approved the project at the June 2 hearing. 

Brett Feldman, the attorney for property owner Meir Gelley, told he University City Review that he was excited by the outcome and was ready to help his client move forward with the project. He said that the new apartment complex, which would designate 15 of its 76 units as affordable housing for 50 years, would be “groundbreaking” and “precedent setting” for private development in Philadelphia.

“This case is about a lot more than just 48th and Chester, this case is about how do we try to have private developers work with neighbors, work with community groups, work with elected officials in order to have responsible development that provides much needed housing but also tries to creatively provide real, affordable housing opportunities,” Feldman said. “This really was a test case, and it would have been tremendously disappointing to have the zoning board vote to deny it, so we’re very pleased and very appreciative to the zoning board.”

“And what’s wonderful about this is that it didn’t cost the taxpayers of Philadelphia or the citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania one dollar,” Feldman added, noting that the development was entirely privately funded and was not having the government subsidize its affordable housing units.

Protect Squirrel Hill, an anti-gentrification group that has led much of the opposition to the project, rejected the notion that the development was affordable. And the group has repeatedly pointed to its petition against the project, which has garnered the signatures of 591 neighbors of 48th and Chester Avenue, as evidence of predominating community opposition to the project. Protect Squirrel Hill has also plastered the area around the property with signs protesting the development and have staged emotive demonstrations against the project.

Members of PSH also note that Southwest Philadelphia District Services hosted a community meeting several weeks before the first, April 7 ZBA hearing. At the meeting, 64 of 72 neighbors in attendance, and four of eight RCO representatives in attendance, voted against the project.

In a statement sent to the UC Review, PSH said that members felt the ZBA had “betrayed” residents with its decision to grant the variance.

“Despite overwhelming opposition to the project by nearby neighbors and our Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) betrayed the community and approved the proposed development at 48th & Chester,” the PSH statement said.

The controversy around the property at 48th and Chester Avenue (specifically 4701-15 Kingsessing Ave.)  has centered on gentrification and affordability. Proponents contend that the planned apartment complex would increase the neighborhood’s housing supply, helping to meet increased demand from incoming young professionals, and slowing the growth of local rents. They also say that the property owner’s guarantee of affordable housing is rare for a private development project – meaning that any alternative development at the site would likely include no affordable housing. Others note the project’s proximity to the transit stops, saying that the project could increase the use of public transit, decrease the use of cars, and thus lower the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Opponents, like Protect Squirrel Hill, have expressed fear that the apartment building would only benefit large developers and hasten gentrification, with wealthy, white newcomers displacing longtime Black residents. They also denounce Gelley for not designating all of the 76planned units as affordable housing and note that even the affordable units are too expensive for many West Philadelphians.

Although activism leading up to the hearing had been largely anti-development, speakers at the hearing were more evenly split. There were 23 recorded speakers who offered to testify against the development and 17 who were there to testify in favor. (Although one ZBA member said that some anti-development speakers had accidently activated their “raise hands” Zoom feature when the board was counting pro-development speakers, meaning that the number of pro-development activists may have been overcounted.)

On the pro-development side, some residents argued that the gentrification of the neighborhood was already underway even without any new development – and that increasing the housing supply was crucial to forestalling displacement.

“The project site and my apartment are both in the same census tract, but from 2010 to 2019, the median annual income in this tract increased by over $7,000, the population of the tract that identifies as white increased by 201, and the population of the tract that identifies as Black decreased by 162 – this tract has over the past decade experienced a textbook case of gentrification,” said resident Alex Schieferdecker. “This change can’t be blamed on new development, because there has been none – in fact, in that same period, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the number of housing units in the tract decreased by 93.”

“My neighborhood has seen displacement without development, more people want to live here, but there are fewer spaces available for them, and so prices have increased, and people who can’t afford the new rents have been forced out,” Schieferdecker added. “And I support this project, not because I believe it will solve this issue alone, but it will help.”

“I believe if we don’t build it, it will only exacerbate the concerns about gentrification in the neighborhood,” said Gabriel Gottlieb, another resident. “Rather than what some others are saying, the theory it will reset the rent [higher], I think it will only make things worse if we limit the supply of new housing.”

Katherine Dowdell, a member of Cedar Park Neighbors, spoke in favor of the project and encouraged the board to decide quickly and put the contentious neighborhood dispute to rest.

“I would like to urge the board to make a decision today or quickly,” Dowdell said. “This has been a very stressful issue in the community, and I think everybody would like to know what their next steps are.”

Cedar Park Neighbors, which is a registered community organization, or RCO, has been an advocate of the project and wrote a letter of support to the ZBA. The promises to designate 15 units as affordable housing, stem from a community benefit agreement, or CBA, between Cedar Park Neighbors and Gelley.

In a statement sent to the UC Review, Cedar Park Neighbors celebrated the approval of the agreement, saying it advanced the group’s goal of creating more affordable housing in the neighborhood.

“The proposed building at 48th and Chester (4701 Kingsessing Avenue) presented an opportunity for us to leverage our support by negotiating with the owner to provide a meaningful level of affordable housing in this private development,” the Cedar Park Neighbors said in its statement. “We are pleased that both the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) and the City Planning Commission agreed with this position and gave unanimous approval to the variances needed to allow this project to move forward.”

“We will continue to work to maintain the diversity that makes Cedar Park the unique and wonderful place to live that it is.”

Residents at the ZBA hearing opposed to the project countered with concerns that a large apartment building would expedite gentrification.

“The grounds for the neighbors’ opposition are substantial and speak directly to the proposal’s negative impacts on their quality of life, among these a net loss of green space, greater traffic congestion, and increased parking difficulties,” said Mary McGettigan, a member of the RCO West Philadelphia Neighbors for Progressive Planning and Preservation.  “But neighborhood opposition is based also on the real threat that this type of development poses to their largely low-income and extremely diverse community of renters as well as homeowners.”

“In the absence of rent controls and other efforts to protect them, longtime members of the surrounding community face the inevitable outcome of rising rents, and involuntary removal.”

Others heralded for the original zoning of city planners and said deviating from their design would hurt the character of the neighborhood.

“I object to the zoning variance because it will damage our cohesive, stable community and character,” said project neighbor Robin Markle. “As the photos we submitted and a study of the density of the area reveals, the planners in West Philly did an excellent job, they’ve created our neighborhood to be green, cohesive, stable, a mix of housing-dense apartment buildings, row homes, and single-family housing.”

“We all know each other, and we have a walkable social, diverse neighborhood in terms of race, age, gender, and socio-economic mix,” Markle added. “Spot zoning a massive apartment complex would destabilize and destroy what the city planners thoughtfully zoned and created.” 

While proponents of the project spoke without incident, ZBA Chair Frank DiCicco, along with other ZBA members, occasionally lost patience with those testifying against the development. He rebuked anti-development witnesses for speaking on the behalf of other parties, such as other petition signers, or for offering complaints deemed not germane to the project or the variance request.

Testimony became especially contentious when one resident expressed her preference that the property revert back to a neighborhood dog park, which it had been from 2002 through 2019. DiCicco, however, noted that the reopening of the dog park was exceedingly unlikely. Instead, the property owner would probably build what he could under the current zoning code by-right, meaning without further authorization from the city –namely, 28 market-rate twin duplexes that would not likely include any affordable housing.

“It is not a public dog park,”DiCicco said.“It is a privately owned parcel and the reason it is vacant land is because a building was torn down and no construction was put in place, and now we have a construction project that’s been proposed.”

Feldman had at times been reticent about whether Gelley would choose to build duplexes by right if the variance to up-zone the property was denied. In comments at the June 2 meeting, Feldman spoke pointedly about that possibility.

“They’re huge, mister chairman, here is what you will get, here is the by-right,” Feldman said, telling DiCicco about the size of the parking curb cuts that would be necessitated by the duplexes.

Cedar Park Neighbors also expressed concern about the by-right alternative that Gelley would likely build if the variance were denied – addressing the matter directly in the letter one of its members, Shawn Markovich, wrote to the ZBA.

“There is a concerned group of neighbors who, regardless of concessions the applicant has made, do not want to see any development on the property,” Markovich said. “This is simply not an option - the property owner has made it clear that the property will be developed.”

“The current project allows for 15 units of affordable housing for 50 years, while the by-right option includes NO affordable housing units,” Markovich added.

Some at the meeting testified that they would prefer the duplexes to a new multi-family apartment building.

“I am in support of the by-right, because that will bring in far fewer residents to this neighborhood than the proposed apartment building who have purchasing power, who are going to add to the density, add to the parking issues, add to many of the issues that we brought up before about affordability,” said project neighbor Jillian Jetton. “I believe that the by-right houses will have far less of an impact on our neighborhood and the affordability.”

There were also concerns raised by residents that the signage posted to keep neighbors informed about community and zoning meetings was not large enough – a claim dismissed by DiCicco,who remarked that all the community meetings about the property were exceptionally well attended by what were seemingly sufficiently informed neighbors. 

One anti-gentrification group opposed to the project that was not mentioned by any witness at the hearing was West Philly United Neighbors. In March, West Philly United Neighbors, which has apparently been led by Temple University Assistant Biology Professor Ang Sun, posted flyers promoting the unfounded claim that general, large construction projects can cause colorectal cancer – with the group then asking nearby residents for small samples of their feces for a purported cancer study. The group advertised the project with posters referencing Chadwick Boseman – the late lead actor of Black Panther and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom who died of colon cancer last year – and said the project was being worked on by several other researchers from Temple.

Temple has completely disavowed any association with the study, saying in an article from Billy Penn that it had never been reviewed or approved by the Temple Institutional Review Board, as would be required to receive the university’s backing.

West Philly United Neighbors has not returned requests for comment about the ZBA’s approval of the variance or about the fecal-matter study.

The project had attracted a swarm of attention from other groups prior to the June 2 hearing. West Philadelphia Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said in a letter to the ZBA that her office was inundated with comments about the project – and those comments were overwhelmingly in opposition.

Gauthier herself has been ambivalent towards the proposed development. In a statement she published in May, Gauthier said she opposed the variance, citing the overwhelming feedback her office received against the proposal. The statement went on to say, however, that the planned apartment building at the location would provide more affordable housing than any other alternative development – leading Feldman to even cite parts of the councilmember’s statement during the hearing.

“I have to mention that we have worked closely with the district councilperson [Gauthier] really from almost day one on this, however she did issue a letter of opposition,” Feldman said. “But just like Cedar Park [Neighbors], her letter is really one of the strongest endorsements for why this project makes sense and why this board should strongly consider approval.”

The property at 48th and Chester Avenue is owned by Gelley through an LLC with a mailing address in Brick, New Jersey, where his regional healthcare company, Nationwide Healthcare Services, is also based. The 15 affordable units, with 23 total bedrooms, would have fixed rents based on 40% of the Philadelphia region’s area median income, or AMI – amounting to a rent of $677 to $870 per month depending on apartment type and size. The current design has been revised from the original version to lower the height of the building from four to three stories in some places, enlarge parking available to potential tenants, and reduce the overall number of units. These accommodations for affordability, parking, and height were reached in the CBA with Cedar Park Neighbors.

The variance functionally up-zones the building to allow for multi-family development. Absent the variance, the current, on-the-books zoning for the property, an RTA-1, would only allow for the 28 duplex twins to be developed.  The land had served as a private dog park from 2002 to 2019 and had been the site of an apartment building until the 1990s, despite the current zoning disallowing multi-family housing.

 

Feldman credited the work of Cedar Park Neighbors and its decision to enter into a CBA with Gelley. He said that the group “drove a really hard bargain,” to ultimately make for a stronger project. He also credited the contribution of neighbors and housing advocacy groups.

“This project is lightyears better than it was when we first presented the first plan back in December,” Feldman said. “We got so much great feedback, so much intelligent feedback, from neighbors, from city officials, from city planning, from community groups.”

“Tt was better because of some of the yelling that we got,” Feldman added. “It was better because the people who live right there, they know the site better than anyone.”  

 

This enthusiasm was shared by the urbanist PAC 5th Square, which supports increasing development in the city. In a press release sent to the UC Review, the group said it believed the development at 48th and Chester Avenue would help improve affordability in the area.

“The granting of this variance request also sets an important precedent for developers who work with neighborhood groups and provide affordable units in good faith,” said Will Tung, a 5th Square member and project neighbor, in the press release. “While this particular project will not single-handedly solve the affordable housing crisis, the 15 below-market apartments included in this building will make a material difference to 15 Philadelphia families who will now be able to live in homes with affordable rents guaranteed for 50 years.”

The group also struck a conciliatory tone. It acknowledged that opposition to the project was widespread and expressed hope that both those in favor of the development and those opposed could come together to promote affordable housing, as well as other goals, such as combating global warming, and reducing traffic accidents.

 

“5th Square also acknowledges the concerns of many neighbors who came out in opposition to this project,” 5th Square said in the press release. “While our solutions may differ, we are all united in our shared values to tackle the tough challenges of housing affordability, climate change, and traffic violence.

“It is our hope that we collaboratively and respectfully work together going forward to solve these region-wide issues.”

Feldman too, hoped that opponents would give the development a “second chance,” and come to see the planned apartment building as an important part of the neighborhood.

 

A reconciliation between pro-development and anti-development activists does not seem forthcoming.In its statement to the UC Review, Protect Squirrel Hill said it “will absolutely fight this decision.” And a post on the PSH Google Docs page said that the group is discussing plans to appeal the ZBA decision. Any appeal to the ZBA decision must be filed within 30 days of the June 2 vote and would be heard by the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

The group did, however, extol community members who value affordable housing in Philadelphia, and said it was optimistic about future activist efforts. 

“We are grateful to live in a community of people who care deeply about housing justice,” PSH said in its statement. “Regardless of the ZBA's decision, we have built connections and power as neighbors in this process, and that will serve us in the weeks, months, and years to come.”

Gauthier is urging pro-development and anti-development advocates to make amends. In a statement sent to the UC Review, the councilmember denounced the toxicity she said she witnessed during conversations over the development – instead emphasizing the need for different groups to work together in a fight to create affordable housing in Philadelphia. She said that she planned to launch an initiative surveying general community concerns about zoning and housing over the summer.

“The passionate response to the zoning variance request for 48th and Chester is a testament to the fraught nature of discussions around affordability and development in our district and throughout Philadelphia,” Gauthier said. “It's important to create opportunities for these discussions outside of the pressure cooker environment that individual project can generate.”

“I've devoted decades of my career towards the creation and preservation of affordable housing in Philadelphia,” the councilmember added. “I continue to believe deeply in residents' right to have a strong say in the vision for their neighborhoods.”

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