Message to Society Hill: Building's height isn't the problem

The Acme supermarket on Fifth Street, near Delancey, in Society Hill, is targeted to be replaced by a five-story apartment project.

Given how much Philadelphians love their expanding skyline, it’s surprising how little tolerance they have for density. If you’ve ever attended a Philadelphia community meeting, you know how the objections go: The height of the building is going to overwhelm the scale of the neighborhood. It’s going to destroy the area’s historic character. It will create massive traffic jams. And then the clincher, "This isn’t Manhattan."

I can understand such concerns when a developer is trying to jam an immense skyscraper into a gracious rowhouse neighborhood. A high-rise is an extreme leap in scale over a three-story house. But lately it seems that some civic groups are rebelling against even small, incremental increases in height.

Take the fury raging in Society Hill over a proposal by Alterra Property Group for a mid-rise residential building at Fifth and Delancey, where an Acme supermarket now stands. The monster under discussion would be all of five stories, 53 feet. It’s taller than many of its neighbors, but not by much.

Alterra’s design is far from perfect, but height is the least of its problems. After all, this is a city where buildings have always come in many shapes and sizes. While I don’t share the philosophy of the Yimby (Yes in My Backyard) crowd, who argue that any density is good density, Society Hill should be able to accommodate a five-story, 65-unit building in this location.

We know that neighborhoods become livelier places when they offer a mix of building types. Having that broad selection increases the chances that someone of moderate means will be able to find an affordable apartment. That translates into greater social diversity. You also need that density to support shops and transit.

But the Society Hill Civic Association seems to think its neighborhood is a village, unsullied by modern intrusions found in the rest of Philadelphia. “We care about keeping the character of Society Hill because the rest of the city doesn’t seem to care what happens to it,” President Rosanne Loesch told me.

Arguing that Alterra’s five-story building is at odds with Society Hill's colonial-era buildings, the group has donned full battle gear to fight off the intruder. Planning and legal consultants have been hired, appeals filed. Residents have placed SOS signs -- Save Our Society Hill -- in their windows, suggesting that the very soul of the neighborhood is at stake.

Based on this rhetoric, you might assume that Society Hill has no tall buildings. In fact, the site of this supposedly neighborhood-killing apartment building is barely two blocks from a clutch of 300-foot towers. A luxury condo building at Fifth and Walnut will top out at 380 feet. Opponents also seem to forget that many of Society Hill's older buildings are also quite tall, like the stately, McCall elementary school at the Sixth Street end of Delancey Street. Society Hill is dotted with mid-rises, from the Abbotts Square condos to Toll’s new condos at Front and Lombard. 

Once you start looking around, it quickly becomes clear that the one-story Acme, with its unattractive parking lot, is the real outlier. That brick structure, and the retail strip across the street, were constructed in the 1960s as part of an urban renewal project to turn Society Hill into a middle-class community. Somebody could do a graduate thesis comparing the design of these one-story structures with the so-called “village stores” in the Levittown, N.Y., neighborhood where I grew up. They’re virtually identical.

By making height the bogeyman, Society Hill’s civic association is in danger of losing sight of something more important: how Alterra’s mid-rise is designed. Although the developer has not released renderings, it has applied for a zoning-use permit. At the moment, the apartment house appears to be a generic box, the kind you see along placeless, autocentric highways. Its long, bland facade would also hover oppressively over Fifth Street. (But not as oppressively as renderings suggest. Produced by a consultant for the civic group, KSK, they exaggerate its bulk.) 

Alterra's Leo Addimando said the design is developing and insists, "We don't intend to build a cheap stucco box." His architects, Coscia Moos, will need to lighten the facade with setbacks, balconies, and architectural detailing. The civic association should also lobby for quality materials on all four sides. The new condo project on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, known as One West, is a good starting point, but there is no reason the architects can’t produce a design that is both contemporary and contextual.

Many Society Hill residents are rightly concerned about the potential loss of their neighborhood supermarket. While Addimando says he would like to lease the ground floor to another supermarket, he acknowledges it is not a certainty.  Residents fear  he is courting a drugstore, which pays more in rent than a supermarket. They note that the zoning application indicates a small, 3,000-square-foot lot is being set aside for a small green grocer, which would have very little display space facing the street. Given the habit drugstores have of papering over their windows, the ground floor could be a blank wall.

Such an arrangement would be unfortunate because Addimando is seeking a height bonus for including a fresh-food store, worth an additional 15 feet. As Loesch argues, that’s a gross misuse of the zoning bonus, which was intended to get developers to build supermarkets in food deserts. Here, ironically, the bonus would reward Alterra for replacing a large supermarket with a small one. Without the bonus, Alterra can build a 38-foot structure, assuming it's economically viable.

The city’s fresh-food bonus, like its new bonus for affordable housing, is a problematic tool for promoting the social good because it is nearly impossible to enforce. You can never be sure the retail space will be leased to a supermarket, and there's nothing to stop the owner from finding a different kind of tenant after the lease expires.

Yet Philadelphia still needs such mid-rise developments. It is much worse to see a developer dump density into a single project, like the overscale 29-story high-rise Toll Bros. plans for Jewelers Row. Even quaint villages find ways to fit in apartments. So can Society Hill. 

Note: This column was corrected. Alterra says it is continuing to pursue a supermarket as the main tenant.

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