“Critics were quick to note the incongruency between Gauthier’s opposition to the variance and the pro-development themes of her statement, speaking out on the councilmember’s Twitter and on the Medium pages.”
After an anti-development campaign saw residents being asked for fecal samples, it appears that plans for a new apartment building in Squirrel Hill are in danger of being flushed down the drain.
West Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier announced last Tuesday that she would oppose the zoning variance needed to build a planned apartment complex on S. 48th and Chester Avenue. She said she plans to voice her opposition in a Zoning Board of Adjustments hearing next month – diminishing the chances that property owner Meir Gelley will win approval for his variance request. In a statement explaining her decision, Gauthier said that she decided to oppose the variance due to an onslaught of calls her office received attacking the project.
“The volume of calls and letters that my office has fielded regarding the zoning variance request at the corner of 48th Street and Chester Avenue dwarfs all other zoning-related matters we’ve encountered since entering office last year,” Gauthier said. “The vast majority of this feedback is against the project. After much consideration, my office has decided to oppose this variance at the Zoning Board hearing next month.”
The property at 48th and Chester Avenue (specifically 4701-15 Kingsessing Ave.) is owned by Gelley through his Brick, New Jersey company, Nationwide Healthcare Services. The planned apartment complex would have 76apartment units, of which 15 units, with 23 total bedrooms, would be designated as affordable housing. The fixed rents of the affordable units would be based on 40% of the Philadelphia region’s area median income, or AMI – amounting to a rent from about $677to $870per month, depending on the 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 after meetings with several registered community organizations, or RCOs, such as Cedar Park Neighbors.
But to move forward, Gelley would need to acquire a variance from the ZBA that would functionally up-zone the land. The current zoning is an RTA-1, which allows for duplex twins, and Gelley is seeking to allow for a multi-family development. The land had served as a private dog park from 2002 to 2019, and in decades prior had been home to apartment buildings.
Brett Feldman, the attorney for Gelley, said that he was disappointed in the councilmember’s choice to oppose the variance. He highlighted his work with the community to try to provide community benefits and ensure affordability.
“We worked very closely with the councilperson’s office, neighbors, and some of the community groups on providing a new-precedent-setting amount of affordable housing on the property,” Feldman said. “For a private project that doesn’t have governmental subsidies, it is an unheard amount, a large amount [of affordable housing] and I think a lot of people were very appreciative of it.”
If the ZBA does not grant Gelley the needed variance for the apartment project, the current zoning for the property would allow him to build duplex twins. This construction could be done by-right, meaning without the need for any authorization from the city.Feldman said that he had not yet discussed with Gelley if building duplexes is something he would be interested in pursuing if the ZBA does not grant his variance request. He emphasized that Gelley’s goal remained winning approval for the up-zone variance.
Gauthier’s opposition comes after months of pressure from various community organizations. Groups such as Protect Squirrel Hill and West Philly United Neighbors have staged emotive displays in protest against the planned development, saying that it could cause gentrification by raising property values. They fear that increased property values would lead to increased rents to and to the displacement of current, neighborhood residents, especially Black residents. They have also denounced Gelley for not designating all of the 76planned units as affordable housing. And the units that are designated affordable housing, the groups have argued, have their rents determined by the regional AMI, which is elevated by the inclusion of wealthy, Main Line suburbs.
In a statement sent to the University City Review, Protect Squirrel Hill (PSH) celebrated the councilmember’s opposition to the variance.
“This is a huge victory for our neighborhood, and a testament to the power of many voices rallying behind a single cause,” PSH said in its statement. “Thank you to Councilmember Jamie Gauthier for meeting with and listening to your constituents, particularly residents who have lived in the area for decades.”
“By creating a truly community-engaged process, we will be able to work together to fulfill our shared goals of protecting and stabilizing vulnerable residents of West Philly, while finding ways to create more genuinely affordable housing and an environmentally responsible community.”
The group also pointed to its petition against the development as evidence of their popular support, which, according to the PSH statement, had garnered almost 600 signatures.
Others shared the enthusiasm of PSH. Theresa Sims, of the Cedar Point Park Neighborhood Association, said that while the development was outside of her RCO’s purview, she was encouraged by Gauthier’s decision. She said that Gauthier demonstrated that she listens to the communities she represents, and that she was looking to protect their interest.
“I applaud her for supporting the community that’s there and actually standing up and doing what she said she was going to do when she first ran for office, which was to listen to the community and to try to be the voice of the community,” Sims said. “And quite frankly, in these days and times, the community members need a hero, we need someone to stand up for us, someone to advocate for us, and what better than to have an elected official do that.”
Sims added that she hoped the councilmember would consider talking with different parties involved to downzone land in residential, single-family home areas.
“What the councilwoman needs to do is to sit down with the various RCOs and do a remapping of the zoning in her district, because there are some areas in the district that are inappropriately zoned up for high-level commercial, when they’re also in a residential area,” Sims said. “As we see, as it’s spreading around the community, it’s starting to cause disruption.”
The role of West Philly United Neighbors in the conversations around the project, meanwhile, has been bizarre. In March, the group, which has apparently been led by Temple University Assistant Biology Professor Ang Sun, posted flyers promoting unfounded claims about how large development projects could potentially cause colorectal cancer – and asked that residents submit a small sample of their feces to study the issue. 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. In an article from Billy Penn, Temple said that its Institutional Review Board had not reviewed or approved the study, and Gauthier expressed concerns that it was sowing confusion and anxiety in the community.
West Philly United Neighbors did not respond to requests for comment from the UC Review on the fecal-matter study or on Gauthier’s opposition to the variance.
There are those in the community that still support the project, despite Gauthier’s opposition. Katherine Dowdell, of Cedar Park Neighbors, noted that Gelley’s up-zoned project would provide much needed affordable housing to the neighborhood.
“The developer and his representatives are still intending to put in 15 affordable units out of 76 total units, and we think that that’s a good addition to the neighborhood,” Dowdell said. “Cedar Park Neighbors is aware of the need for more affordable housing in the neighborhood, we’re going to support projects that provide that, and so we’re supporting this project.”
Dowdell added that the proposed project would be more affordable than the alternative duplex twins that can currently be build by-right in the area – and said she believed eventual development of the property was inevitable in any case.
“Duplex twins with frontloaded garages, those are going to be far more expensive than even market rate apartments,” Dowdell said. “The thinking that there is not going to be development on the lot given the current development climate in this city is just untrue, someone is going to develop the lot.”
Some citywide, pro-development groups are also still standing in support of the development, such as the urbanist political action committee 5th Square.
Will Tung is a member of 5th Square and lives a couple of blocks away from 48th and Chester Avenue. He said that developments like Gelley’s planned apartments would increase the housing supply in the neighborhood to help meet increased demand from University City students, faculty, and medical professionals – all while providing a fixed stock of affordable housing. This kind of development, Tung said, would help address University City’s housing shortage, ultimately reducing rent increases, and making the neighborhood more affordable for all Philadelphians.
“For me both as a neighbor and a resident finding affordability in the neighborhood, I feel like it’s the wrong decision that the councilmember made,”Tung said. “If you’re concerned about gentrification, and you’re concerned about displacement, we’re going to have to actually build affordable housing, and that requires development.”
“A lot of [anti-development activism] is trying to preserve West Philadelphia in amber, and the problem with that is if you don’t build affordable units, all we have is West Philly twins, and it’s just going to be less and less affordable,” Tung added.
Gauthier peculiarly seems to have endorsed some of these arguments herself. In her statement announcing her opposition to the variance, the councilmember lauded the development plan as something that would furnish the neighborhood with affordable housing.
“The developer for this project is willing to provide a level of affordability that we have never seen in the new construction private market,” Gauthier said. “I understand and philosophically agree with the push for 100% affordability that many of those opposing this project have repeatedly made, but we also must consider the alternatives: building nothing at all, or building only what the zoning code will allow, which in this case is 28 duplexes with no affordability restrictions on them. To me, these do not feel like viable solutions to the challenges our district faces regarding housing affordability.”
Gauthier also noted that the increased housing supply would help meet “intense demand” for housing in the neighborhood.
“It is true that the proposed rents for this project’s market rate units are higher than most rents currently available on the immediate surrounding blocks,” Gauthier said. “But the reality is that this section of our district is already experiencing intense housing demand, so it’s likely that rents will continue to rise even if nothing gets built on this site.”
Critics were quick to note the incongruency between Gauthier’s opposition to the variance and the pro-development themes of her statement, speaking out on the councilmember’s Twitter and on the Medium pages.
“Wait, I'm so confused by this statement,” commented James Gitto, a 5th Square member and the president of the West Passyunk Neighbors Association. “She opposed the project but then lists all the reasons she should have supported it.”
Feldman, the lawyer for Gelley, said that most of the councilmember’s statement read as an endorsement of his client’s development plans.
“We are disappointed and confused by the conclusion of the statement, but we believe that the statement itself is one of the most persuasive, powerful, well-reasoned expressions of why this project should be supported,” Feldman said.
Apart from discussing the project itself, Gauthier’s statement also took aim at the tenor of the conversations surrounding the project. She denounced the “vitriol” that she and her office had experienced while they were talking with the community to reach a decision.
“I understand the urgent need to achieve housing justice, and the passion that people feel for these issues,” Gauthier said. “But the vitriol I witnessed in these conversations sets a troubling precedent for all of us, especially as neighbors are pit against their fellow neighbors, which will only make it harder to have open dialogue about development issues moving forward.”
Sims, of the Cedar Point Park Neighborhood Association, said that the vitriol was a sign of the stressful and contentious times.
“Unfortunately, in these times, we are in a situation where conversations can get volatile, and I think that’s a shame, because our community in the past has been able to be very civil in our disagreements,” Sims said. “No community agrees one-hundred percent with each other, but we’ve always been able to discuss it and come up with something.”
Sims added that some of the hostility might be emanating from unrepresented community groups.
“I do think some community groups may not be stepping up to represent the community as much as they should, so sometimes that brings some of that behavior,” Sims said. “But it’s sort of a sign of the times, so we do have to try to get beyond that.”
Tung, the 5th Square member, said that he sympathized with many of his neighbors and the PSH activists. He acknowledged that there was widespread popular opposition to large developments and said that many residents were afraid that there was a causal relationship between new development and higher rents – although he maintained that his neighbors’ fears were misplaced.
“I totally understand the optics of it, it seems like an apartment building goes up and because the apartment building went up, and because there’s maybe a bunch of white people living in your neighborhood, that this means that your housing price is going up, and it’s very natural to think that, and I used to think that way too when I first moved to Philadelphia,” Tung said. “But if you dig into it and you think about it for a little bit, the laws of supply and demand apply here like everywhere else.”
Tung also emphasized that 5th Square was still “in full support” of Gauthier, whom the group endorsed in her successful 2019 Democratic primary campaign against longtime West Philadelphia City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. Tung said he understood Gauthier’s decision in light of the vocal input she received from constituents opposed to the project.
“I know Protect Squirrel Hill and other people who are opposed to the development, they really turned out, they had an amazing ground game,” Tungsaid.“We didn’t do the things on the pro-affordable-housing side that they did opposing the development.”
Members of PSH expressed optimism that they could continue to work with Gauthier and members of the community.
“By creating a truly community-engaged process, we will be able to work together to fulfill our shared goals of protecting and stabilizing vulnerable residents of West Philly, while finding ways to create more genuinely affordable housing and an environmentally responsible community,” PSH said in the statement it sent to the UC Review.
Despite Gauthier’s opposition to the requested up-zone variance for the planned apartment building at 48th and Chester development, nothing is set in stone. Feldman said he was still eager to present his client’s case for a variance to the ZBA.
“The decision is for the zoning board, I don’t know how the zoning board is going to vote,” Feldman said. “We believe in this project, we tremendously appreciate the support, the time that so many neighbors have given to work with us and to attempt to make this project a reality, and we are going to continue to proceed.”
Protect Squirrel Hill said that its members are “look[ing] forward to presenting our testimony against this project at the zoning hearing.”
Tung said that he and other 5th Square members who neighbor the 48th and Chester development have signed up to testifying in favor of the variance.
The ZBA hearing that will determine whether Gelley is awarded a variance is scheduled for June 2 at 2 p.m. It will be held via Zoom, and instructions for attending or commenting on the meeting can be found at the link https://admin.phila.gov/media/20200918164157/ZBA-meeting-instructions-v3.pdf .