City Council exempts Society Hill from zoning break for green roofs and grocery stores

City Council has exempted Society Hill from development incentives aimed at promoting access to fresh food and reducing stormwater runoff.

Members voted Thursday to void the so-called density bonuses for projects in an area bounded by Walnut and Lombard Streets, between Eighth Street and the Delaware River, after residents said the incentives are allowing development that’s out of scale for their neighborhood.

The bonuses, which remain intact in other parts of Philadelphia, permit developers to build higher projects with more units than area land-use rules otherwise allow in exchange for the inclusion of  “green” roofs and fresh-food markets.

The legislation — introduced by Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district includes Society Hill — comes amid plans for a multistory building with modest-sized residential units that would replace the Acme market on Fifth Street between Spruce and Pine. Many residents of the upscale Center City neighborhood oppose that plan.

Squilla said in an interview that he was unaware of any other cases where a specific neighborhood has been carved out of citywide zoning rules in this way.

"Normally, you wouldn't just take citywide bonuses out of a specific area," he said, but "we met with the community and they had concerns."

The fresh-foods bonus was implemented in 2011 to make healthy food available throughout Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. It allows developers to add height to residential projects that feature grocery shops selling fresh fruits and vegetables.

The green-roof bonus, enacted in 2015, lets developers boost the number of units in their projects when they top their buildings with a layer of plant life to absorb rainwater and reduce energy use.

Developer Alterra Property Group initially planned to use both bonuses in a proposal for a five-story, 65-unit building at the Acme site, managing partner Leo Addimando said. Later, in response to community input, the company reapplied for a permit to build a four-story, 47-unit building there using only the fresh-foods bonus, he noted.

Since Alterra applied for its zoning permits before City Council began considering withdrawal of the zoning bonuses, the change should not affect his project, he said. But he added that he found it disappointing that Council would "spot-zone a piece of property and curtail someone's property rights."

Society Hill Civic Association president Rosanne Loesch declined to comment. Members of the group have said that the size of Alterra's proposed building would overwhelm the tidy rows of single-family homes that line its streets, notwithstanding residential high-rises such as the 31-story Society Hill Towers complex.

They have also argued that the fresh-foods bonus meant for underserved communities is being misapplied in their neighborhood, since it is supplanting a full-service supermarket.

Greg Pastore, a Philadelphia real estate investor who has served on the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment and Zoning Code Commission, said Society Hill has no inherent special circumstances that should qualify it for exemptions from rules that apply to other parts of the city.

He said it sets a dangerous precedent when a single community is able to withdraw from a "citywide compact" drawn up to address its residents'  larger concerns. "We have to do this as a big city, and not as a bunch of little tribal villages," he said.

It's unclear what immediate impact the changes would have, or whether they could withstand legal challenges.

Few large developable parcels in Society Hill have the small-scale, mixed-use zoning designations in which they would have the most impact. Such properties include the parking structure beside Headhouse Square with Pizzeria Stella on its ground floor and a parking lot that's part of the Society Hill Towers' parcel along Third Street.

Squilla said he was sensitive to concerns that inconsistently applied zoning rules could cause trouble for developers and initially resisted residents' calls to exempt them from the bonuses.  

“But," he said, "with Society Hill being one of the oldest historic areas in the city, and with the change in density and the possibility of smaller units being put in there, the community thought and felt it would change the makeup of that community."

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