The ZBA Approves Industrial Conversions All the Time. Why Not the Quaker Building?


(Quaker Building | Photo: Post Brothers)

Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron uses her column this week to blast the Zoning Board of Adjustment for their transparently political rejection of Post Brothers' redevelopment plan for the Quaker Building at 9th and Poplar. 

As we wrote last week, Post had worked out two separate community benefits agreements with two local RCOs (the 14th Ward Democrats, and the Richard Allen New Generation RCO) where, among other things, they pledged to use 50% minority labor for the project. 

Black and brown workers have historically been shut out of the city's notoriously segregated building trades, whose membership is overwhelmingly white, male, and suburban in character. So to the extent that local politics gives a leg up to union construction, it's also perpetuating a segregated construction sector with few opportunities for local residents to get jobs in Philly's booming land development economy. 

As Saffron points out, an important subplot of the Rebuild initiative was the imperative by some members of City Council and the Kenney administration to build a pipeline for minority workers into the trades. But none of that's happened yet, so when Post Brothers and neighbors negotiated a local hiring deal for the Quaker Building, the implication was that this would involve non-union labor on a pretty major redevelopment project for the area. The ZBA, which is stacked with building trades affiliates, saw local labor as a deal-breaker.

ZBA didn't just come out and say this though, as Saffron explains.

"Of course, the board never explicitly said the minority hiring plan was the reason for rejecting the request. That’s not how things work in Philadelphia.The official explanation is that Post Bros. failed to demonstrate that the Quaker warehouse’s industrial zoning classification was obsolete and prevented the developers from profitably using the building. In the language of zoning, they didn’t prove “financial hardship.” No hardship, no residential variance.

The board’s logic strains credulity. The Planning Commission supported the Post Bros. request for a variance and sent a staff member to testify at last week’s hearing. At my request, the head of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., John Grady, did a drive-by analysis of the building. His conclusion: “The cost to retrofit it as a warehouse, or for light manufacturing, would be a significant challenge.”

She then goes on to note that other major warehouse-to-residential conversions in the area have had an easy time getting approval from ZBA, including a former hat factory, the Heid Building, that the Kenney administration was celebrating just this week.

A look at the ZBA's appeal data confirms that they've almost never met a warehouse conversion project they didn't like.

Between August 2012 and August 2016, out of 739 appeals for use variances on industrially-zoned parcels, only 17 appeals were denied, 8 were dismissed, and 395 were granted. Many others were either held or continued, and there were also some cases that still hadn't been decided yet at the time this data set was prepared.

But the number of use variance denials is obviously very small compared to the number of approvals, and there's no evidence that the ZBA has ever before demonstrated any strong philosophical opposition to residential conversions for vacant factory buildings. This is a newfound concern, and it reeks of politics.

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  • Jon Geeting
    published this page in Blog 2017-09-21 14:59:31 -0400