Circling Back To The Ross Loopholes

 

Ross Luxury Townhomes | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Ross Luxury Townhomes | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Maybe it’s fitting that Betsy Ross was a seamstress, an occupation that eventually made her blind, for the Ross Luxury Townhomes, going up across the street from her house, made it through some rather wide loopholes. The first was zoning. The site is zoned for commercial mixed uses (CMX-3), a designation meant to encourage commercial activity, density, and street-level vitality. It also allows single family houses. And north of Market Street private street-front garages haven’t been banned, as they (nominally) have south of Market into Queen Village and Bella Vista. So if you could have a single family house in CMX-3 at Third and Arch Streets, you could have one–or three of them–with private, street-facing garages. Even on a 300 year old retail street across from a legendary historic site.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment couldn’t do anything about this, either (I initially reported this incorrectly in my earlier article). The ZBA adjudicates requests to violate the zoning code. In this case, the developers of the houses, Lee Kaplan and Bob Miller, proposed less open space than was allowed; the ZBA rejected this request. The developers adjusted their plan to fit code, and the ZBA never heard from them again.

Deputy mayor of economic development Alan Greenberger told me he was incensed about the project when he learned it would have private garages and curb cuts. When the CMX-3 category was created, he said, no one imagined it would be used for single family houses. He is prepared to ask City Council to close that loophole by removing single family housing from the category.

But there were other loopholes.

The fabric of Old City | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

The fabric of Old City | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

The parcel, near Third and Arch, is in the Old City Historic District. The Historical Commission has a statutory role on any development in a City-designated historic district. It can reject inappropriate adaptive reuse of existing buildings and it can offer guidance about new construction on parcels that have been vacant for a long time. The Historical Commission ruled on October 11, 2013 that “the buildings should be completely redesigned.” The residential scale and the garage fronts were in violation of the Secretary of the Interior’s historic preservation standards (the basic guideline for the preservation field). But since this parcel had been “undeveloped,” the Historical Commission’s ruling was non-binding; the developers were free to ignore it.

While the Historical Commission voted unanimously to reject the garage-front plan, it didn’t have the power to stop it and it wasn’t backed by a clear neighborhood voice on the issue. This is because the once-feared Old City Civic Association, the group that had–for better or worse–aggressively managed the look and scale of the neighborhood, had dissolved several months before.

The fact is that garage-front houses and curb cuts, as I and others have reported before at length, have eaten up blocks of our strongest and most viable neighborhoods, ultimately limiting the impact of growth by undermining the very urban experience, undercutting transit, and sacrificing public good for private gain (a two-for-one loss of public parking spaces). In Fairmount, Bella Vista, Queen Village, and Fishtown, garage doors near transit hubs predominate.

But most of this is hidden to most of us. The Ross luxury garages will be there every time you bring your aunt Mabel to the Betsy Ross House to learn about early needlework. You’ll look across the street and see a great big loophole, and some kind of expensive car inching through it, (hopefully) trying to avoid the pedestrians just trying to get to Starbucks, on the corner.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



7 Comments


  1. How on earth was the parcel “undeveloped?” Does that term mean that it was never developed, or that its current use didn’t count as developed? Because it was most definitely at one point occupied by at least one building. Even if it was the latter, builders of parking lots and garages (e.g. Parkway) are usually considered developers… so parking lots should be considered developed land.

    • In this case, “undeveloped” means that there was nothing on the site when the historic district was established. Certainly there was something on this lot in the past, but the creation of an historic is based on a snapshot of the conditions at the time of designation.

  2. “In Fairmount, Bella Vista, Queen Village, and Fishtown, garage doors near transit hubs predominate.” Yes, damn the people for not submitting to the latest theories of urban development. Damn them for not cycling, damn them for not walking, damn them for clinging to their cars. Yes, Popkin, it’s true that the wrong kind of people will live in these luxury townhouses.

    • This isn’t a question of the people making wrong decisions. Or being the wrong people. It’s a question of a city that has been woefully slow to protect it’s greatest asset–its urban form. This is a matter of policy. The theories of urban development that are having such widespread impact across the United States and elsewhere have been in the air since the 1950s. Louis Mumford was a Penn professor in the 1950s when he asked if the city was a place for people or for cars. This isn’t anything new. But Philadelphia policymakers, sometimes for justified reasons, have accepted any development as good development and have acceded the streetscape to domination by the car, such that it’s nearly impossible to build protected bike lanes, stop garage-front houses, and increase density. The garage doors steps away from main transit lines mean that we as taxpayers are subsidizing developers to undermine our transit system that we as taxpayers support. So this is an argument about urban economics, not about personal taste.

    • If you don’t care about history and preservation, why are you reading this blog?
      You’ve obviously missed the point entirely.

      • i read this blog because I do care about history and preservation, and I comment when Mr. Popkin’s rants become to much to bear. In a perfect world you could forcibly remove all the uncooperative and unappreciative Philadelphians who still need to drive to work and relocate them to Delaware County. But you need to deal with reality. Over a third of Philadelphians commute to work outside of Philadelphia and the regional rail does not drop them off in front of their workplace.

  3. We need to ensure that this loophole is also closed for all other CMX Zoning classifications, with the possible exception of CMX 1.

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