ZBA Rejects Quaker Building Plan Despite RCO Support


(The Quaker Building | Image: Post Brothers)

Last week we wrote about how wards shouldn't be officially recognized as RCOs by the city, and discussed the example of the 14th Ward organization being assigned as the coordinating RCO to hear Post Brothers' zoning appeal for a conversion of the long-vacant industrial Quaker Building into a 350-unit apartment building at 9th and Poplar.

The 14th Ward ended up writing a letter of support to the ZBA for that project after they negotiated a draft Community Benefits Agreement with Post. The developer ended up proposing a parking ratio of 1:2, higher than what's required, discounted rents on 21 of the 91 1-bedroom units, and they agreed to invest in a nearby playground, provide scholarships for neighborhood kids, and hire local labor.

Ward leader Diane Monroe summarized the RCO's view on the project:

"The development of proposed sites will be a welcomed improvement to the community. The Developer agreed to enter into a Community Benefit Agreement with the community to assure his interest in the betterment of the surrounding area of his proposed project.   The development of proposed sites will add a feeling of safety to the surrounding community’s children and especially the women. Adding retail shops will increase the economic opportunities for the impact residents.  Improvements to this area will add beautification of N. 9th Street from Girard Ave to Brown Street is long overdue. This area is considered to be abandon by the residents living near and far away.  It is an eye sore.  This is an area that has been long neglected for decades.  Hoping for Industrial type businesses to come back to this area I doubt will ever happen.  This project will not affect the density in this area."

According to a statement from Michael Pestronk of Post Brothers, Clarke's staff told Post that Clarke would support zoning relief for the project if it had RCO support, which it did.

But now Melissa Romero reports that when the project went before the Zoning Board of Adjustment yesterday, it was shot down by the board, and Clarke's staff did not testify in support. 

According to Pestronk, ZBA members insisted that the Quaker Building's industrial zoning was still appropriate, despite the fact that it's already been vacant for 20 years, is poorly suited for modern manufacturing needs, both economically and architecturally, and is located right next in the middle of an otherwise residential area. 

"The board stated that they did not believe there was a hardship with the current industrial zoning, and that it should be used for industrial use," Pestronk said, "This was beyond disingenuous. The building has sat vacant for over 20 years, as have countless other factory buildings all over Philadelphia.

It's not economically feasible for industrial use today because: 1) industrial users want to be on 1 wide floor, not 8 skinny vertical floors; 2) industrial users require good transportation access as well as loading, which this does not have; and 3) given the building's incredibly dilapidated state, prevailing industrial rents would not support the renovation costs necessary to make the building occupiable."

The idea that the ZBA members care about hardship, per se, is particularly hilarious, as that almost never seems to factor into what they approve or disapprove. The board hasn't previously opposed residential conversions of vacant industrial buildings in this area either, including the Umbrella Factory. The rejection of the Quaker Building variance for this reason smells fishy, particularly since it has clear RCO support. 

According to Pestronk, the ZBA members affiliated with the building trades unions pushed back when a community member in attendance brought up the local hiring provision in the Community Benefits Agreement. The trades are overwhelmingly white and suburban, so there's a tension between using local labor and trades labor.

Is that why the project really went down? Again, the ZBA approves the overwhelming majority of variances that come before it. They rarely disapprove residential conversions of industrial buildings, including a few prominent buildings in this same area. The project had strong support from the RCO, and therefore, supposedly, Council President Clarke's office. 

Post intends to appeal the decision, but there's a quicker option available. Since the community supports the Quaker Building redevelopment, and Clarke did in fact promise to support the RCO's position, it should be easy for Clarke to agree to a legislative rezoning to legalize the project. 

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  • Jon Geeting
    published this page in Blog 2017-09-14 12:23:16 -0400