Inquirer editorial: Don't let Philly developer renege on lower rents

One Water Street stands 190 feet at its highest point. The developer, PMC Property Group, wants to renege on the affordable-housing option that allowed it bonus height.

It's disappointing that developer PMC Property Group may be allowed to wiggle out of its agreement to include some less expensive units in its new luxury high-rise apartment building on the Delaware waterfront.

The complex on Columbus Boulevard near Callowhill Street is five stories higher than it would be thanks to a provision added to the city zoning code in 2012 to increase affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods. PMC agreed to set lower rental rates for 25 of 250 units to become eligible for the zoning exception. But now it wants out of the deal.

PMC executive vice president Jonathan Stavin wouldn't discuss it, so it must be assumed that his firm decided it could not afford to accept lower rents. Neither was it willing to increase the rates charged to other tenants to subsidize the lesser priced units.

Those reasons aren't good enough to allow PMC to back out its promise. Unfortunately, however, city Licenses and Inspections Commissioner David Perri apparently is considering it. PMC reportedly may be allowed to provide amenities other than the lower-rent units, perhaps adding a public art space to the comlex or retrofitting its first floor to include retail space.

Another proposal apparently would allow PMC to donate as much as $5 million to the Housing Trust Fund, which would use the money to develop affordable housing elsewhere. That sounds too much like New Jersey's despicable practice of allowing suburban towns to pay off neighboring municipalities to accept their affordable-housing obligations.

Cynical loopholes like that limit opportunities to create economic diversity, which is important in maintaining the character of Philadelphia's neighborhoods. The Urban Institute says income mixing is an important tool in community development both to provide social diversity and to help lower-income families get access to better goods and services.

San Francisco, Boston, and New York in different ways mandate inclusion of affordable housing in upscale buildings. Philadelphia may need to rethink its approach if it's going to lead to bait-and-switch maneuvers like PMC's, which is how Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron described the firm's actions.

The One Water Street building is 16 stories tall thanks to the zoning favor it received. At that height, it obscures some views of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the waterfront. Adding insult to injury, its orange and gray facade is hardly the pacesetting centerpiece that an evolving neighborhood needs.

Rather than allow PMC to back out of its affordable housing deal, the city should hold its feet to the fire, perhaps by refusing to grant it a certificate of occupancy. If the city gives in to PMC, it will open the door for other developers to claim it's too costly to provide affordable housing. With the market rates being charged in Philadelphia these days, that excuse is hard to believe.