The Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment voted 3-0 Tuesday to approve the Women’s Community Revitalization Project’s plan to replace two vacant, historically significant bank buildings on Front and Norris Streets with 25 units of low-income housing.
The ZBA granted variances that allow WCRP to build multiple, residential-only structures on a commercially zoned property, and to include fewer parking spaces (10) than the number of units.
The buildings, which date to the early 20th century, have stood vacant for three decades or more. Although the banks are not on the city or the federal historic registers, they are among 48 commercial and industrial buildings that would make up a proposed “thematic” National Register of Historic Places district related to Kensington’s textile industry.
Jordan Rushie, a lawyer on the Fishtown Neighbors Association’s (FNA) zoning committee, said that he is working with a neighborhood resident who lives close to the proposed project and plans to appeal the ZBA’s decision.
Two neighborhood groups–FNA and the East Kensington Neighborhood Association (EKNA)–oppose the project, while the Norris Square Civic Association (NSCA) is in favor of the plan. Rushie said FNA and EKNA will file an amicus brief with the court supporting the neighbor’s appeal based on the decisive 60-21 vote against the project at the meeting of the three community groups held in May.
Rushie said EKNA and FNA are concerned the project is too dense, and doesn’t include commercial space on Front Street. “Tearing down this historic property was another concern people had,” Rushie said. “When there’s so much vacant property in East Kensington, it just doesn’t seem like the right project.”
Restoring the banks isn’t feasible according to WCRP. A structural engineer hired by the group recommended demolishing the buildings, which have been allowed to deteriorate since being acquired by the Norris Square Civic Association in 1989. By the time NSCA sold the property to WCRP in 2010, both structures had suffered partially collapsed roofs and significant water damage.
Powers & Co., which is preparing the Kensington textile industry thematic district nomination for the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, included the buildings in its inventory because the banks–Ninth National and Industrial Trust, Title & Savings–were founded by textile mill owners in the 1880s. Ninth National Bank built the neo-classical structure on the corner of Front and Norris in 1919; next to it is the former Industrial Trust, Title and Savings Bank building, date of construction unknown. For more pictures of the bank building interiors click HERE and HERE.
“Those are great examples and pretty unusual stylistically,” said Logan Ferguson, a senior associate at Powers. “The amount of detail shows that an enormous amount of money was spent on them, which tells you how financially significant the textile industry was. Kensington wasn’t just a factory town, but one with a very high end component. That contrast was very nice and (would be) a shame to lose.”
For now, it appears the buildings will remain standing. The project still needs to receive low income tax credits from the State, and that decision won’t be made until next spring. If the money does come through, construction would begin in spring 2014 and be completed the following year, according to WCRP executive director Nora Lichtash. While no renderings of the proposed project are available, Lichtash said the units will closely resemble market rate apartments. “We pride ourselves on having very little difference between affordable and market rate,” she said.
“We have had the support of a lot of folks, as well as opposition from a lot of folks, but we believe that it will be a project that will be a benefit to the community,” said Lichtash, whose agency owns and manages 250 units of affordable housing in North Philadelphia.
Placing the buildings on the Philadelphia Historic Register would protect them from demolition in most cases, but doing so would probably be challenging, said Ben Leech, advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Hidden City Daily. “The Historical Commission is reluctant to nominate buildings when a project is already on the table,” Leech said.
The project, said Lichtash, “will ensure that people who are from this neighborhood will get to stay in the neighborhood who would not be able to otherwise, and that is very exciting to us.”
“It’s the right thing,” said the FNA’s Rushie, “but we think it’s the wrong place.”