Neighbors Fight For Zoning Code Vision In Bella Vista

 

Philadelphia’s major rewrite of its zoning code in 2012 embraced urbanist principles such as increasing density, encouraging mixed use and reducing the number of new single-family homes with first floor garages. Developers have been less than enthusiastic about the new code, however, and have sought variances for dozens of projects from the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) in the name of providing what the market wants.

Klinghoffer Carpet at XXX Bainbridge Street would be torn down and replaced by XX single family homes if the ZBA grants XXX Volpe a variance. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Klinghoffer Carpet at 734-38 Bainbridge Street would be torn down and replaced by three single family homes if the ZBA grants Robert Volpe a variance. | Photo: Peter Woodall

In these instances, the developer has to make a case for “economic hardship” to the ZBA which shows that development isn’t financially feasible. One developer who received a variance from the ZBA last year was Robert Volpe, president of Lily Properties Development. Volpe proposed two new row houses with ground floor garages facing the street just south of South Street on Eighth Street.

Neighbors argued–and the Bella Vista Neighbors Association’s zoning committee concurred–that the garages would be detrimental to the health of the South Street district. But the ZBA ruled for Volpe and the two houses were built according to his plans, a common outcome, according to Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron.

Now, Volpe is back with a proposal to build seven single-family row homes a half block away, four of which would have first floor garages that would require variances from the ZBA. His plan, which will go before the ZBA Wednesday at 2PM, has angered some nearby residents who are fearful of losing the urban life and vitality they say gives the neighborhood its value.

The two single family houses on 8th Street just south of South Street built by Volpe | Photo: Peter Woodall

The two single family houses on 8th Street just south of South Street built by Volpe | Photo: Peter Woodall

The project involves two lots which face each other across Bainbridge Street: the Klinghoffer Carpets showroom at 734-38 Bainbridge, and the vacant lot across the street at 739-41 Bainbridge, where the company’s one-story warehouse stood until recently. Volpe is asking for variances to build single family row homes on each lot because both properties (and the entire block) are zoned CMX-2, which mandates using the first floor for a store or office. The historically commercial Bainbridge Street is one block south of South Street and shares the character of a busy urban street.

His application to the ZBA directly contradicts the intent of the zoning, which is designed to create small-scale residential and commercial mixed use. It states that the current commercial use “is inappropriate in this largely residential neighborhood. The proposed use as single family dwellings is more in harmony with the character of the surrounding area.”

Volpe is also requesting a variance for four first floor garages, two facing south at 739-41 Bainbridge, and two directly behind them facing north at 732 and 734 Kater Street. Each of these four garages, although only a single car’s width, could accommodate two cars via a lift system. The other three, on south side of Bainbridge, include a shared garage for six cars that will be accessed from tiny Perth Street, behind the property.

Historian Regina Blaszczyk, a chair of the Bella Vista Neighbors Association, wrote an open letter to the ZBA outlining her concerns about the project.

Looking south down Kater Street. Two single family houses with garages facing the street on the ground floor would be built in the lot with the blue tarpaulin | Photo: Peter Woodall

Looking south down Kater Street. Two single family houses with garages facing the street on the ground floor would be built in the lot with the blue tarpaulin | Photo: Peter Woodall

“As a neighborhood, Bella Vista is an ideal place to live without a car,” wrote Blaszczyk. “It would be a shame to upset this balance by granting zone variances that create incentives for multiple car ownership.”

For the developer, garages are a key selling point. “The market demands it,” said Volpe. “I’ve built homes in that area in the past and they were very successful with garages.” Designed by local architect Joseph Serratore, the proposed housing units stand 38 feet tall and feature balconies on the third and fourth floors and a roof deck.

The alternative, according to Volpe, was to build multi-family housing with more than 20 units. “We felt this was the less dense development than doing multi-family homes. In essence, there will be less density by just doing the seven homes.”

Proposed site of the three single family houses at 734-38 Bainbridge Street

Proposed site of the three single family houses at 734-38 Bainbridge Street (click to enlarge) | Source: Jos Serratore & Company Architects zoning proposal

To build the three houses facing north on Bainbridge, the developer will tear down the early 20th century commercial building that’s currently the showroom for Klinghoffer Carpets, a century-old neighborhood business. If demolished, the Klinghoffer building will be the second substantial legacy commercial building lost in Bella Vista recently–a 7-Up bottling plant on Carpenter Street was leveled last year.

The curb cuts–ramps cut into sidewalks that allow for cars to pass easily across the sidewalk into a garage–have drawn the most anger. In the immediate vicinity of this project in the past decade, developers have removed 20 public parking spaces in five years, replaced by private, first floor garages accessed by curb cuts. Often, as in the case of another new row house constructed on the 700 block of Bainbridge Street this year, two public parking spaces are removed to make room for one private garage. Some planners view this as a subsidy for the developer, who will receive a premium for providing the interior parking, while removing a public good–on-street parking.

Lily Properties Development brought the Bainbridge Street plans to the May 13th zoning meeting of the Bella Vista Neighbors Association–a required step before a developer can go to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Prior to the neighborhood meeting, Lily Properties Development had sought zoning approval for the project, but, by course, the Department of Licenses and Inspections refused it. The parcels are currently zoned for commercial use on the ground floor.

Front elevation, 739 and 41 Bainbridge Street | Source: Jos Serratore & Company Architects zoning proposal

Front elevation, 739 and 41 Bainbridge Street | Source: Jos. Serratore & Co. Architects zoning proposal

“It was overwhelming opposition to the proposals,” said Jon Geeting, secretary of the Bella Vista Neighbors Association and editor of the online journal Keystone Politics. Geeting cited the curb cuts as a major source of frustration.

During this meeting, residents voiced their concerns about the proposal to Lily Properties Development. But, according to members who were present, Lily Properties Development appeared to be unfazed by the opposition.

“It was frustrating to me because they didn’t really try to give a reason for the hardship,” Geeting said. “They were basically saying that this is what the market wants for this location. They wanted to build what they wanted to build. They didn’t really come into this one with the attitude that there was going to be any give-and-take.”

Volpe also points out that these garage sites have preexisting curb cuts, and that there are 22 garages within a one-block radius of these homes, so it’s not as if he’s doing anything all that new and different.

Looking south from Kater through to Bainbridge Street. This is the proposed site of the four single-family homes that would require curb cuts | Photo: Peter Woodall

Looking south from Kater through to Bainbridge Street. This is the proposed site of the four single-family homes that would require curb cuts | Photo: Peter Woodall

“In fact,” he said, “we’re adding spots, because on the south side of Bainbridge, there was a loading zone, and we’re giving the parking that the loading zone occupied back to the community.”

Blaszczyk, in her letter to the ZBA, pointed out that–despite these hardship claims–five houses in the nearby area that don’t have private parking sold last year for about $900,000. (Volpe will be asking $1 million for the proposed row houses.) According to the US Census Bureau, 37 percent of households in the area don’t own a car. Some 48 percent own one and just 12 percent own two cars.

Blaszczyk also argues that these garage-equipped homes are detrimental to local business, as curb cuts lead to a decline in foot traffic and discourage businesses from setting up shop in the neighborhood.

Other complaints center on the noise level of the garage system itself, which uses a lift system to fit a second car into what amounts to a single-car width garage, the lack of rear yard space in the plans, and the sheer size of the proposed housing units. (For reference, the plans call for the units to occupy 85 percent of the lots, when only 75 percent is permitted.)

Looking north on Perth Street at the back of the Clinghoffer Carpet showroom that faces Bainbridge Street. This is where the entrance for the shared garage with six spaces would be. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Looking north on Perth Street at the back of the Klinghoffer Carpet showroom that faces Bainbridge Street. This is where the entrance for the shared garage with six spaces would be. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Jason Lempieri, a designer who previously served on the neighborhood’s zoning committee (and who has contributed to the Hidden City Daily), said at the neighborhood meeting he proposed putting the parking below ground. “When you go down six feet and raise up the house three-and-a-half feet, you have room for partially submerged parking,” he told Hidden City, pointing out that the proposed garages are very narrow, and don’t allow for much storage space. “And they said, ‘Well, people want to have their own garages.’ But once you share [parking], you have advantages: you have room for bikes, for strollers, kayaks, recreation, and mechanical equipment. Developers don’t care about this stuff. They want to bring the suburbs to the city and that means that everyone gets their own space.”

The Bainbridge-Perth part of the proposed development has caused additional concern. Perth Street, accessed only by already-small Pemberton Street directly across from Cianfrani Park, dead ends into the back of the Klinghoffer showroom. Thanks to its diminutive size and minimal traffic, it’s used substantially by the children who live on the block. Volpe’s plan will bring six cars down the alley to the garage. Some residents worry about the impact on their quality of life.

“Rather than having a long and narrow driveway to serve the vehicles in this development, our community would prefer that Perth Street serve a better use as a pedestrian walkway,” said Perth Street resident Alan Hatfield, in a statement filed by the Bella Vista Neighbors Association. Hatfield also said that the garages presently on the east side of the block will likely be replaced with residential uses in the future. He worries that approval of more curb cuts and the plan to use Perth Street as a driveway will “set a precedent” for future development.

Volpe, however, remains steadfast in what he deems to be a fair and worthwhile project. “We’re going ahead with what we’ve proposed,” said Volpe, who has never lost in “more than a few” cases before the Zoning Board.

About the author

Max Ufberg is a freelance reporter in Philadelphia, where he's been living since 2008. A graduate of Temple University, Max has covered everything from books and business to boxing and blues. He's originally from Scranton, PA.

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19 Comments


  1. No more garages!

  2. Volpe sounds incredibly arrogant. The reason neighborhood groups occasionally get up in arms about developers is because they appear to not care about the neighborhood itself. The actions of Volpe exacerbate this concern. Unfortunately the ZBA meeting is mid-day mid-week so I am unable to attend and oppose this project.

  3. Not only is the concern over curb cuts about lost on-street parking spaces, but also about the livable urban environment in general.

    It’s bad enough we’ve given our streets completely over to cars (I say this as a car-owning resident of Kensington), and that pavement parking is an unfortunately accepted ‘culture’ in neighborhoods like mine (I have never parked on a sidewalk, and never will).

    Now we’ve gotta look for turning drivers every dozen feet or so, as we walk down the street, as well?

    There are appropriate places for driveways and private home garages. They’re called the suburbs. If parking one’s car in a locked space directly under their bedroom is so important to them, that is where they belong.

    The imposition of their lifestyle choices on the rest of us who are not changing the character of our neighborhoods in such a drastic manner is extremely insulting, and highly selfish.

    No, Mr. Volpe. “The alternative” is building your nonsense in the suburbs, where it belongs.

  4. We need more garages, not fewer garages. Go pay for parking in a garage rather than expecting to get a space for free on the street, in front of somebody else’s home. Garages are appropriate in the City, and always have been. If you don’t like them don’t buy a house with a garage, rather than trying to make sure everybody else doesn’t have a garage either.

    • I don’t want a driveway in front of my house. Can I put up a table and chairs in the public space where my car access would otherwise have gone? It’d definitely be a better use of public land than reserving space for a single car to drive in and out of twice a day.

  5. The zoning code actually requires new houses provide parking. It’s only because of an after the fact new overlay “parking protection district” bs that anybody has to go through zoning at all to put in a curb cut. Most of the lots pictured have parking already. What the heck is the problem with you anti-parking nutjobs? Go do something with your own house.

    • I’m usually just called ‘anti-car,’ even though I own one. This is my first time being called an ‘anti-parking nutjob,’ however, so thanks. I think?

      The commenter below has done a fine job correcting your misconceptions. I will only state that if one does not see the problem with curb cuts and dead-zone street-front garage spaces in lively, dense rowhouse neighborhoods, there really isn’t much that can be done for that person.

  6. Prof Regina Lee Blaszczyk

    Dear Mr. Dobolino:

    Thank you for contributing to the discussion. However, your opinion about the Zoning Code is only an OPINION, as it is not based on FACTS. Should you take the time to read the new zoning code, you would see that it prohibits the addition of street-facing garages in new residential development. The Philadelphia Inquirer explained the new urbanist code more than a year ago, which in fact prohibits street-facing garages without a variance. The link to the article is provided in the above text, but for your convenience, I extract the appropriate passage:

    “What makes Philadelphia’s new zoning code such a landmark policy is that it embraces the modern view of cities first articulated by such urbanists as Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte. They understood that cities couldn’t survive with fortified streets and blank ground floors. In the spirit of that movement, the code took the bold step of banning a particular local scourge: garage-fronted rowhouses.”

    As you see, the new zoning code bans garage-fronted rowhouses, rather than “requires new houses provide parking” as you state.

    Of course, developers like Robert Volpe count on the persistence of folklore among the citizenry. Misinterpretations and a lack of understanding on the part of the people do much to advance his agenda. It’s really a form of bullying, plain and simple.

  7. To correct some of the misstatements in the article; the project gives back on-street parking by eliminating an existing loading zone, for a net increase of three (3) spaces. Further, there are zero new curb cuts in the project, zip, zilch, nada, not one. There was not “overwhelming opposition” to this project; there is widespread community support among the 3000 Bella Vista homes; at the RCO meeting, where 57 people attended, a show of hands in opposition got only 12 people against the project. The immediate abutting neighbors on Eighth Street, Kater Street, and Bainbridge Street ALL spoke in support of the project as proposed. This project replaces a commercial use with a residential use (no one opposed this variance request) and where there was 100 per cent lot coverage previously, there will be open space of 15% to 25%. Lastly, Perth Street has more garages (8) on it than homes (6) and this project provides a single (1) parking entrance for all three (3) homes as well as a large terrace (instead of a stucco wall) as a view north. Any of this information was available to the author and would have made the article a tad fairer and more balanced.

    • Professor Regina Lee Blaszczyk

      Dear Mr. Palmer,

      For the record, there was in fact serious opposition to a number of the requested variants put forth by Lily Development at the May 2014 meeting of the Bella Vista Neighborhood Association. While the citizens did not object to the development per se, the vast majority of those present from the community objected to the curb cuts and to the reduction in open space.

      For the record, I asked that the Bella Vista Neighborhood Association record the results of the vote on the curb cuts, and the minutes will reflect that a mere handful of people present were in favor of them. You may want to obtain a copy of the minutes from the BVNA for your records.

      It is my understanding that some 30 people from the neighborhood attended the June 4th ZBA meeting to oppose aspects of this development, and the attorney for the Lily Development did her best to silence the community voices.

      On matters of transparency, are you the real estate consultant who lives on the south side of the 800 block of Bainbridge Street and who does consulting work for Lily Development and Robert Volpe?

      • your Quote: “While the citizens did not object to the development per se, the vast majority of those present from the community objected to the curb cuts and to the reduction in open space.”

        1. FACT: The existing use is 100% lot coverage; the proposed use is from 75% to 85% coverage (or 15-25% open space) an INCREASE in open space; NOT a reduction
        2. FACT: The number of new curb cuts is ZERO
        3. FACT: 12 people objected, out of 57 attendees; in what universe is that a “vast majority”?
        Facts are pesky things and hard to ignore

        • Professor Regina Lee Blaszczyk

          MR Palmer:

          FACT: When a lot converts from commercial use to residential use, the residential coverage rules apply. You and your pal Volpe are asking from a switch from commercial use to residential use, and for an exception to the 75 percent rule that applies to residential use. The request for 85 percent open space is therefore a reduction of 10 percent.

          FACT: When a lot reverts from commercial use to residential use as in the case of the lots on the South side of Bainbridge Street, the curb cuts are automatically eliminated by virtue of the switch to residential use. The number of new curb cuts may be zero, but this is only because you and your pal Volpe are “generously” removing the curb cuts on the south side of Bainbridge Street and replacing them with a gated parking area more fitting to Cherry Hill than Bella Vista.

          FACT: With the curb cuts, only five people voted in favor, and more than twenty objected. You are right: FACTS are “pesky things and hard to ignore.” So get please get yours right.

          FACT: We are still awaiting to see that market research survey that demonstrates that the majority of the 3000 households in Bella Vista are in favor of the Bainbridge Street developmenbt.

    • Professor Regina Blaszczyk

      Dear Mr. Palmer

      You posting states that there is widespread support among the 3000 residents of Bella Vista
      For the Bainbridge Street development. At the May 2014 BVNA I asked
      Mr Volpe if he could provide quantitative data to support
      His impressions of market demand in Bella Vista. Mr Volpe
      Indicated in that public forum that he did not have any such
      data.

      Do you have a survey conducted by a third part to support your assertion
      That there is widespread support among the 3000 residents in Bella Vista for the development? If so might
      I suggest that you share your market survey
      with Hidden City Philadelphia for the benefit
      Of the community?

  8. The upshot here is that the ZBA yesterday ruled in favor of the developer almost across the board, just as he had predicted in this article (which in fact extensively quoted him). There actually was no need for him to be worried, and no sense in neighbors even participating, because it seems the ZBA is incapable of understanding urban economics and urban design, both of which underlie the zoning code they are in effect ruling on. No one who studies or understands urban economics would recommend low density, auto-centric development in a vital mixed-use area like South Street. More density feeds the stores and restaurants that exist; and more retail around South Street would allow that packed in corridor to breath and grow. Now it’s doomed by garage-landia on either side: Bainbridge and Lombard.

    At no time in the process did the developer ever have to explain why the existing zoning code would cause him economic hardship. If he didn’t want to build apartments and stores in the very decent commercial building on the south side of the street, he didn’t have to buy it. If he wanted to build houses with garages, he could have done so elsewhere, as others have commented. But the ZBA never asked him to explain why he couldn’t develop these lots according to code. The article above explains that plenty of houses nearby without garages have sold for record amounts. The ZBA, apparently, just wanted to make Volpe richer, while taking away the public space and public good of on-street parking.

  9. Sounds like Volpe has ZBA in his pocket? Yes if it is converted to residential the 75% rule should apply. Also how can they argue hardship when they go out and aggressively buy properties just to have them rezoned and cry hardship so they can make more money? Here is an idea, don’t buy property in areas that you don’t have the proper zoning in place, just so you can force your ideas on the neighbors, I’m sure there are plenty of developers who would gladly comply with the neighbors wishes

    • Try going to a ZBA meeting sometime. The board seems to side with developers in nearly every case. No need to buy them. I’ve watched them sit stone faced through a litany of neighbors’ concerns and then rule for the devolper who’s argument is usually “This is our plan, we have to do it this way.”

      The only thing that reliably sways the ZBA is a Councilperson being against a project but because most Philly Councilpeople ARE effectively financed by the building trades, it is rare for them to speak out against any development.

  10. If street-front garages are bad for the urban environment, so is on-street parking. Our streets have been transformed into massive linear parking lots with only a narrow aisle for traffic to get through (if it’s not blocked by some dope unloading his groceries).

    Compare our narrow streets with those in the Vieux Carre in New Orleans. There is little on-street parking. The streets are for thru-traffic only. There’s a relaxed inviting feel to the streets that’s not present on Philadelphia’s row house blocks.

  11. As a concerned resident, I’d like to understand what action can be taken to achieve accountability by the ZBA. These developers clearly don’t care about the neighborhood, and the ZBA is unlikely to change on their own. I’d like to see the ZBA realigned with the reformed zoning codes and members should be removed that are not being faithful to the communities.

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