best website stats
We have moved our website permanently to our domain at This website will remain available as an archive, but new content will be posted exclusively to

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Variable Zoning?

This image is an architects rendering of an 11 story hotel that U Penn is trying to build in a historic neighborhood, at 40th and Pine. The site is zoned for only three story homes, and U Penn and the devlopers are trying to get about 6 or 7 zoning variances to build the 11 story hotel and street level cafe. No serious plans have been offered to address the parking, traffic, and deliveries that such a construction would entail. Furthermore, U Penn and the developers have proceeded to bypass the objections of homeowners in the neighborhood at every turn. The following post is a summary of the affair from my friend and neighbor Magali Larson, of the Woodland Terrace Homeowners association. Please read it, and if you live in Spruce Hill and are interested in fighting the good fight, drop me a line or leave a comment.

A community fights against urban development: why should this be interesting for Democrats?

Magali Marson

Since October 2007, the grassroots opposition to the development planned on Penn property at 40th and Pine has been growing and growing, generating the involvement of many different people who live in this diverse community. The initial impulse started with Woodland Terrace, a beautiful tree-lined block of Italianate Victorians, where there are still many homeowners –academics, retirees, craftsmen, professionals as well as students and young workers.

The development is going to be a Hilton Homewood Suites franchise, an extended stay hotel, for which the developers claim the humanitarian purpose of housing (certainly not at discount rates!) the families of HUP and CHUP patients … or anybody else, depending on the public addressed. It is simple to describe why the neighbors are opposed: 11- stories crammed in a lot much too small for the building, absolutely no parking, and 110 feet of height in a gracious neighborhood of historic homes where maximum height is 3 stories and 35 feet. The developers have never made any substantial concession or significant adjustment of their project, except lowering the height from 114 to 110 and introducing two setbacks on the 9th floor –but the building is still 11 stories high, although it looks as if the mass has been reduced. Nor have they provided any evidence to back their “best scenario” claims about the guests’ use of mass transit. What they have done is tout the restoration of a much-altered and dilapidated Victorian mansion that is on the site to all who would hear, especially the kind of preservationists who would save a tree (the Victorian wreck) at the cost of the forest (the two historic neighborhoods that surround it). Thwarted in their plans to demolish the historically designated house, the developers have traded off its restoration for the erection of an 11-story slab that will forever deface the neighborhood. Inexplicably, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission staff, which can be quite professional, has changed its criteria: from condemning the height (114 feet) they accept it now at 110 and buy the “orientation to mass transit” of this hotel and the restoration that was an obligatory after thought. We should all be for mass transit, but it is clear in this case that the developers only talk about it because they cannot provide parking as required by law.

This is a classic fight against the wrong kind of urban renewal, and the cast of characters is interesting. On one side is the owner, The University of Pennsylvania, the largest employer in Philadelphia, hiding behind its real estate department, and pushing its group of developers: the manager of most its properties (Campus Apartments, notorious among student residents), plus Penn’s former director of real estate, Mr. Lussenhop, and the Hersha Hospitality Corporation. The public face of the project is Mr. Lussenhop who reside sin the neighborhood and has many friends, especially the chair of the Zoning Committee of Spruce Hill Community Association, a man with much power in his little pond. He too has many friends, and many enemies. On the other side are the neighbors and their allies, collecting signatures, writing letters, mobbing public meetings, (actually not so public meetings) and talking to all who would hear. One who hears is State Representative James Roebuck, Jr. –formerly a history professor at Drexel—who knows how to distinguish the grassroots from the volunteers who run the community associations without having been elected, by the force of hard work, dedication and staying power.

These community associations are interesting, for they do not always speak for those they claim to represent, not when powerful neighbors like Penn infiltrate all the volunteer organizations, co-opt them with donations (or lack thereof) and communicate with them at regularly held top-down meetings (one loses one’s way with so many First Thursdays, Last Fridays, Second Tuesdays and so on!).
There is a discrepancy between residents who want development, especially commercial and especially far from where they themselves live, and residents who are in solidarity with those most directly affected and fear the precedent this would constitute. One Democratic ward leader sides with the first group: she says, textually, “if the people most directly affected were those who are heard, nothing would ever be built.” Right. In a neighborhood where Penn seems to daily change the design of streets to fit its new buildings, and to erect high-rises (all without parking) everywhere –although this is the first time in a historic residential area.
These two groups have different allies. Now the opposition goes far beyond the Woodland Terrace and Pine Streets associations. It has grown, in large part, because no preliminary consultations have ever been attempted and because the tune is “my way or the highway.” As the eminent Penn historian Michael Katz writes:
What is truly shocking about this proposal is the absence of any public discussion of alternative uses for the property. The idea that this hotel represents the only, or best, use is preposterous. Why not, for instance, consider demolishing the existing structure, which is ugly, dilapidated, and a monument to the mistreatment of the old and sick? The site could house a low-rise hotel or apartment house, a town house development, a mixed-use commercial and residential development – or something else appropriate to the site and neighborhood. Between Penn and the residents, there are enough informed and creative people to transform the site into a model of good urban design.

What the developers repeatedly declare –and what the Spruce Hill Community Association too often seems to tacitly endorse —is that this part of the neighborhood is overrun with students, who “do not matter and do not care.” The signatures collected are pooh-poohed as coming “from undergraduates.” This in the City of Philadelphia, which has been engaged for years in a concerted effort to retain graduating students in the area. Such contempt on the part of the same landlords who fill their coffers with student rents must be addressed.

There always are good reasons to support a grassroots effort. If you want to get involved there are hearings to attend and petitions to pass and hopefully there will be victory parties after we remind the city and its mayor what zoning and development should be like.

Click "There's more..." for the entire letter from Magali.