From one view, it’s this week’s Center City District housing report with its proof in numbers of a Philly residential boom. From another, it’s Spike Lee going off on an irritating audience member at Pratt Institute about the unquestionable influx of affluence of Brooklyn. From two directions, the same topic—gentrification—has been on many a tongue lately, including at last night’s community meeting in Brewerytown to discuss the long awaited development of a neighborhood white elephant: a lot at 27th Street and Girard Avenue that has sat vacant for over 20 years.
In last night’s case, however, the pejorative G-word came from a single audience member looking to stir trouble, with claims of being railroaded and having no say in the project. A neighbor reminded him that this meeting served that purpose. Otherwise, the audience, a mix of long timers and younger residents from different backgrounds, voted in overwhelming support of the project when District Councilman and City Council President Darrell Clarke’s aide Zenobia Harris took a vote by a show of hands.
Clarke joined the meeting hosted by the team developing the lot, a partnership between MMPartners, who have developed and renovated dozens of properties in Brewerytown and who have offices a block away, and Adco American Development, a suburban retail specialist who has owned the lot since the 1960s. Back then, they replaced a longtime bus and trolley garage with a Shop ’n Bag supermarket.
That market was demolished in the early 90s, and since then a number of plans to redevelop the site, including a controversial McDonald’s, have come and gone, something a number of older residents pointed out. Councilman Clarke fielded that response, saying that controversy inspired the zoning overlay on the lot, requiring community input before anything could move forward. “A lot of proposals have come down the pike here, Aldi’s, Fresh Grocer… but these are national chains that determined the site was too restrictive for a supermarket,” he told the audience. “There was much more room at 31st and Master for Bottom Dollar, and that frees up this space for other uses.”
To that end, the developers hope to have the site rezoned, as currently it holds a CA-1 (formerly C7): auto-oriented commercial (i.e. a suburban style strip mall or supermarket) left over from the Shop ’n Bag days. That shouldn’t be a problem considering how out of place that zoning is for so prominent a lot served by three bus lines and a trolley in a growing neighborhood.
The five-story building, to be called Girard27, will feature 68 apartments above 15,000 sq ft of retail space, the retail fronting Girard and the residential entrances along 27th and Taney Streets. Ten three-story townhouses with a similar design will line 27th Street down to what is now the North Star Bar’s parking lot. (That lot is actually not North Star’s, but part of the larger lot owned by Adco.) Roughly 60 parking spaces will be positioned on the site’s interior, accessed by a single curb cut each on 27th and Taney Streets; the townhouses will have their own garages in the rear, used by the same cuts. Touches of green include a number of trees in the parking area and along 27th and Girard, sustainable materials to be used during construction, and possible on-site stormwater treatment.
Dan Bleznak, an Adco partner, indicated that no retail tenants have been signed yet, as the team wants to straighten out the zoning first. “We’re looking at a number of options, from local food vendors to national pharmacy chains,” he said.
Girard27’s design comes from JKR Partners, whose principal Jerry Roller is the father of Jacob Roller, one of the MMPartners. And while it’s not the first of its kind in Philadelphia, it’s definitely a new look for West Girard. In response to a neighbor who asked whether they had considered using red brick and historic materials, MMPartners’ David Waxman explained, “we typically try to avoid making things look historic. We have a blank canvas here, so we want to make a statement.”
And a statement it is, particularly when paired with the Braverman Building they’re already developing directly across Girard Avenue. Named for the bakery that once occupied the dilapidated building there that’s about to be demolished, the five-story Braverman Building will house 16 residences and two offices (one of which MMP will move their offices into). MMP intends to preserve the Shepard Fairey mural on its wall in sections over the course of demolition, which begins next week. Unlike Girard27, this one is already approved—and without any parking.
If all approvals are met (i.e. if zoning variance is granted), Waxman said he expects the shovel to be in the ground end of this year/early next year, and for construction to last 12-15 months. The five-story building and the townhouses will be built at the same time, rather than in phases.
With two modern, five-story, mixed-use buildings facing one another at 27th and Girard, MMPartners’ subtle investment in the neighborhood for over a decade will have a more visible face. On top of home renovations and infill housing, they’ve brought attractive tenants to Girard Avenue, including RyBrew, Shifty’s Tacos, High Point Cafe, Brewerytown Beats, and Icy Signs; a bike shop will open next month, and Pizza Brain’s as-yet-unnamed second location and a brewpub for Crime and Punishment Brewing are in the pipeline.
Waxman recognizes the sensitivity a development team like MMP must exercise in a neighborhood like Brewerytown. “When we started here [in 2001], we didn’t come here to make or change the neighborhood,” he says. “It’s already here.”
As his partner Roller told Hidden City last year, “we’ve been very sensitive to the idea of gentrification…. We want to add to its core, and forming relationships is key.”
Perhaps no relationship has proved more vital than that with longtime District Councilman Clarke, who wrapped up the meeting by praising the project. “This is the kind of thing that will bring vibrancy to this corridor,” he said, adding that the neighborhood already has the supermarket it long hoped for here just down Girard at Bottom Dollar.
The lone vocal opponent at this point demanded to know whose Registered Community Organization the project fell within. Clarke, mindful of the racially diverse audience (and mindful that his own district spans from Logan Square to Strawberry Mansion), responded, “these artificial boundaries don’t matter. The Planning Commission has their needs, but as I operate, this is about who lives nearby. The conversation doesn’t stop just because something’s on the north or south side of Girard. This is about community.”