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Trade union politics derail N. Philadelphia apartment proposal

Inga Saffron, Architecture Critic

Updated: Thursday, September 21, 2017, 6:14 AM

The Quaker warehouse was built by Strawbridge & Clothier to store furniture and was served by the adjacent railroad. Today, it is an industrial survivor in the low-rise, suburban-style neighborhood of West Poplar.

Nearly two-thirds of Philadelphia’s residents are nonwhite and 53 percent are women, but you wouldn’t know it from a visit to a city construction site. Despite decades of official hand-wringing over the lack of diversity in city trade unions, it’s still mostly white men who rivet the steel, pour the concrete, and install the shiny glass facades on our new buildings. In 2008 — the last time anyone was able to pry any numbers from union leaders — just 10 percent of their members were African American.

Looking west from 8th street on Poplar the old Strawbridge and Clotheir warehouse sits right next to Septas elavated rail line. Michael Bryant
The West Popular neighborhood was redeveloped in the late 1990s as a suburb-in-the-city and features twin homes with lawns and driveways. Inga Saffron
Photo Gallery: Trade union politics derail N. Philadelphia apartment proposal

Under pressure from City Council, Mayor Kenney has taken some baby steps to address the imbalance. His administration just negotiated a deal to ensure that minorities account for 45 percent of the workforce who will be reconstructing the city’s recreation centers as part of the Rebuild program. At a June event touting the accord, Kenney declared that “a shiny new skyline means nothing to Philadelphians who can’t find a job” and hailed the program as a new beginning.

Too bad the Zoning Board wasn’t looped into the conversation.

When the board rejected a developer’s proposal last week to build apartments in a vacant West Poplar warehouse zoned for industrial use, it didn’t merely condemn a blighted building to stand empty. Its 4-to-1 vote also killed an innovative agreement that would have created dozens of good-paying jobs for minorities.

Unlike the deal Kenney arranged, this one was reached directly between the community association, Richard Allen Homes New Generation, and the developer, Post Bros., specifically for the conversion of the massive Quaker warehouse and Ninth and Poplar. Post’s owners, Matt and Mike Pestronk, pledged that 50 percent of the construction crew for the $100 million project would be black, Hispanic, or Asian, and that 10 percent of the total workforce would come from the West Poplar area. The outcome thrilled the largely African American neighborhood, said Bruce Crawley, a former neighborhood resident who helped found the civic association and helped broker the agreement.

The catch is that Post would need to employ significant numbers of nonunion workers to meet those ambitious hiring targets because so few minorities have been admitted into Philadelphia’s insular building trades.

The deal did not sit well with the five-member Zoning Board, which is dominated by union officials, including Anthony Gallagher, business manager of Steamfitters Local 420, and Confessor Plaza, a field representative with Laborers’ Union Local 57. Until he was caught up in an FBI investigation last year, the Zoning Board was run by James Moylan, a close ally of John Dougherty, the head of the electricians’ union and one of the most powerful politicians in the city.

In their world, Post Bros. is still remembered — and resented — for bucking the trade unions during the construction of the Goldtex apartments in Callowhill in 2012. Not a single Philadelphia elected official rallied to the developer’s defense after the unions laid siege to the Goldtex site, blocking deliveries for six months. Last week, the only ZBA member to vote in favor of granting the Post Bros. a variance for West Poplar project was Thomas Holloman, an architect who is the sole African American on the board.

Of course, the board never explicitly said the minority hiring plan was the reason for rejecting the request. That’s not how things work in Philadelphia.

The official explanation is that Post Bros. failed to demonstrate that the Quaker warehouse’s industrial zoning classification was obsolete and prevented the developers from profitably using the building. In the language of zoning, they didn’t prove “financial hardship.” No hardship, no residential variance.

The board’s logic strains credulity. The Planning Commission supported the Post Bros. request for a variance and sent a staff member to testify at last week’s hearing. At my request, the head of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., John Grady, did a drive-by analysis of the building. His conclusion: “The cost to retrofit it as a warehouse, or for light manufacturing, would be a significant challenge.”

Multistory factories with narrow floor plates just don’t work for modern industry, which prefers sprawling, single-story facilities. That’s why a slew of former industrial buildings on the edge of West Poplar are being turned into apartments. Eastern Lofts. Oxford Mills. Fairmount @Brewerytown. Pyramid Electric. This week, Kenney proudly celebrated construction at the Heid Building at 13th and Wood in Callowhill. The former hat factory received a residential variance several years ago.

The idea that the West Poplar neighborhood could accommodate a big industrial user is especially outlandish. The neighborhood, which occupies the pocket south of Girard Avenue between Eighth and 13th Streets, is a veritable suburb-in-the-city, populated by twin homes set on large lawns with ample driveways. It is the product of a Clinton-era program to replace public housing projects with low-density, mixed-income neighborhoods.

Because of the Quaker warehouse’s enormous size — 350,000 square feet of solid concrete — it was virtually the only large industrial building to survive the urban clearance that created West Poplar in the 1990s. Built in 1910 as a furniture warehouse for the Strawbridge & Clothier department store, the 350-foot-long building hugs SEPTA’s elevated viaduct. It was originally served by rail, and a spur still cuts through the building. The loading docks on Ninth Street can barely accommodate a van, never mind a tractor-trailer.

No wonder the eight-story warehouse has sat boarded up since the late 1990s. Back then, no one could imagine Philadelphia’s revival spreading as far north as Girard Avenue. But with the construction of Temple University’s new athletic facility at Broad and Girard, Center City and lower North Philadelphia are about to merge into a single mega-neighborhood.

West Poplar is in Council President Darrell L. Clarke’s district, so you would think he would be all for its residents’ finally getting a piece of the construction action. Yet, strangely, his office has offered no support for the Post Bros. project.

The Kenney administration may be regretting the episode. The Post Bros.’ lawyer, Carl Primavera, said that he had requested a do-over hearing, known as “reconsideration,” and that he expected it would be granted. A city spokesperson said a final decision on the new hearing would be made within the next 30 days. Then we’ll find out whether the Kenney administration and the union-controlled Zoning Board are truly serious about diversifying the construction industry.

Inga Saffron, Architecture Critic

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