The struggle over the fate of Hoa Binh Plaza at 16th Street and Washington Avenue was scheduled to be resolved this morning at the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA). The plaza’s prospective buyer, local real estate developer Streamline, seeks approval to demolish the decades-old strip mall of Asian retail businesses and erect 44 townhouses and apartments. Doing so along this industrial corridor would require a zoning variance, hence the scheduled appeal.
During the meeting, several grassroots organizations, including VietLead and Asian Americans United, staged a protest in front of City offices at 1515 Arch Street. Many of the several dozen participants carried signs reading “Keep our communities rooted” and “Development without displacement.”
Upstairs in the 18th floor hearing room, representatives from the organizations were on hand to speak in opposition and to deliver a petition with over 14,000 signatures protesting the demolition. The group soon discovered they would need to wait for another day to be heard. When the ZBA, led by acting chairman Confesor Plaza, began hearing requests for continuances, one came from an attorney for Streamline, Dawn Tancredi, for the Hoa Binh Plaza project.
It’s not unusual for any party in a zoning dispute to ask for a delay. What ensued in this case demonstrated both a new level of struggle in the old versus new fight over gentrification and a seemingly new concern expressed by the City’s Department of Planning and Development.
Tancredi explained that Streamline had made changes to the plan, received an amended refusal on July 8, and needed time to update their presentation.
In that latest refusal, the Planning Commission’s opposition seemed to go beyond the basic nuts and bolts of zoning, and expressed concern for the potential loss of the plaza and its businesses, which have been a community hub for Asian immigrants in South Philadelphia since 1990.
The Planning Commission’s attorney noted that most of the variance requests that are made to the Commission are delegated to the executive director, but “because of the unique circumstances and the history of this particular site, a decision was made to bring this variance request to the full commission.”
At first, Nancy Nguyen of VietLead and Madeleine Shikomba of the North of Washington Avenue Coalition objected to the continuance, citing the dozens of area residents and business owners who took time off to attend the hearing and the hardship a return visit would cause them. When acting chairman Plaza recommended that the developer use the period of the continuance to meet and negotiate with community groups, they relented. Nguyen pressed the ZBA to receive the petition, but it was declined.
The Planning Commission’s attorney noted that any subsequent changes that Streamline might make in response to community input would necessitate another review by the City. He explained that the Planning Commission opposition still stands, unless amended plans are presented to them.
The ZBA approved the continuance and, owing to the volume of attendees, promised a date that would be devoted solely to this project.