Changing Skyline: Dear Point Breeze - Manage gentrification

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Developer Ori Feibush has proposed building 22 rowhouses on the vacant lot at 20th and Wharton Streets in Point Breeze. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

In most Philadelphia neighborhoods, two recent zoning cases would have been treated as routine proposals. One called for 22 rowhouses to rise from the rubble of a crumbling factory. The other sought permission to turn a trash-strewn lot into a summertime beer garden. But in Point Breeze, a zoning case is never just about zoning.

And so the two proposals followed the usual script. There were angry meetings where the projects were denounced as accelerators of gentrification, and their developers vilified for "not giving back" to the community. Tense negotiations followed. Neighbors demanded a grab bag of givebacks. Yet, in the end, both were approved by the city with few changes. Everyone went away angry.

Does it always have to end like this in Point Breeze?

There is probably no neighborhood in Philadelphia where the city's building boom has left such a bitter taste as Point Breeze, a working-class, African American neighborhood that was hit in the 1990s by drugs, crime, and gun violence. Even though many longtime residents acknowledge the benefits of new development, the fear of being pushed out by rising rents and property taxes still dominates the conversation. It's hard not to see every new project as a referendum on the neighborhood's identity.

That was the case last week when developer Ori Feibush asked the Zoning Board for a variance to build at 20th and Wharton, on an industrially zoned site where the Wanamaker factory once stamped out horseshoes. Even though the block is now ringed by houses, the local civic group - a mix of old-timers and new residents - demanded that Feibush find another industrial user or a supermarket. Never mind that the narrow streets can barely accommodate the truck traffic that such businesses generate.

Feibush, who just lost a primary challenge to Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, is notorious for his strained relationship with the neighborhood, so the pushback was not unexpected. But a more popular developer, John Longacre, received similarly rough treatment when he unveiled plans to operate a beer garden this summer on an empty lot along Point Breeze Avenue, the neighborhood's struggling commercial spine.

Longacre says he saw the three-month pop-up as a way to test the site's potential for an apartment building with ground-floor retail - something the avenue could really use. But not only was he attacked in fliers distributed around Point Breeze, critics called in city building inspectors, who twice shut down the operation. The reason remains a mystery. Both times a judge found no violations and ordered the city to allow him to reopen.

The folks who fought these two projects aren't wrong to see them as harbingers of gentrification. Many Point Breeze residents are refugees who fled the Graduate Hospital neighborhood in the '60s, when the city was trying to push through a South Street expressway. They've experienced displacement firsthand.

While those concerns are valid, derailing such projects won't stop the neighborhood from changing. The best that Point Breeze, or any other gentrifying neighborhood, can do is to manage its transformation so residents can remain in their homes, and ensure housing options exist for every income level.

How can that happen?

Gather data on displacement. "The fears are real fears, but we don't know if it's 500 people or 5,000 people," says Beth McConnell, policy director at the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corps. Having hard numbers would enable the city to calculate how much affordable housing Point Breeze actually needs. The neighborhood has a huge inventory of city-owned, vacant land - about 10 percent of the total land area.

Be realistic about developer givebacks. During negotiations with Feibush, the civic group's demands were all over the map. If Feibush wouldn't build a grocery or a factory, they argued, then he should provide affordable housing, green space, reduced density and an improved design. Though the neighborhood could certainly benefit from such amenities, it's just not reasonable to expect the developer of a 22-unit project to deliver all of them.

Feibush did satisfy one small demand: parking. Thanks to the civic group's insistence, every house will now have a garage. That's just dumb. Although they won't be visible from the street, and will be accessed by a common driveway, they're still unnecessary. The houses sit on the Route 17 bus route, and it is just 10 minutes by bike to Center City. Worst of all, the garages will add perhaps $1 million to the project's total cost, and houses are expected to sell for $400,000. If the goal is affordability, the neighbors would have done better to keep their focus on that issue.

Keep existing homes livable. There's been a steady drumbeat calling for the construction of subsidized housing in Point Breeze, but the fact is there's no shortage of cheap housing in the area. It's just that much of it is in poor condition.

One of the city's best gentrification-fighting tools is a program providing small grants to help qualified, low-income homeowners make urgent repairs, like fixing a leaky roof. Habitat for Humanity, which just built six homes in Point Breeze that sell for $150,000, wants to switch its efforts to renovating existing houses because it's more cost effective, says Carrie Rathmann, director of strategic partnerships. Maybe Feibush could make a donation to the effort?

Take advantage of property tax relief. Low-income homeowners are eligible for rebates from the city to offset rising property taxes. Yet McConnell's group estimates 30 percent of those who qualify citywide have not applied.

Don't pooh-pooh density. One of the neighborhood's complaints with Feibush's project was that it was too "dense." But density is really another word for "supply." Increasing the supply can translate into lower costs and a broader range of affordability.

Manage the retail corridor. A big beef in the neighborhood is that it lacks basic retail services, like a grocery or hardware store. Bringing in more people will eventually change that. But Point Breeze Avenue needs help right now. Feibush estimates 80 percent of the storefronts are vacant. A corridor manager like the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corp. could help stabilize the strip by supporting existing businesses and making it more attractive to new ones.

These strategies will probably require an organization with trained staff. It's the best way for Point Breeze to take control of its destiny.


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This column was amended to correct the list of improvements sought by the Point Breeze civic group during its negotiations with developer Ori Feibush.