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An apartment complex for North Philly gets nixed amid debate of future of American Street

A large development plan is dead and a rezoning proposal is being amended to give the community more say in new construction.

John Mulligan, a Bucks County resident and volunteer in this North Philadelphia community garden, puts up a banner urging locals to stand against City Council taking community gardens and other community-held lands in the area.
John Mulligan, a Bucks County resident and volunteer in this North Philadelphia community garden, puts up a banner urging locals to stand against City Council taking community gardens and other community-held lands in the area.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Ambitious plans for a high-rise apartment complex along American Street are being abandoned amid pandemic concerns, community opposition, and concerns about potential environmental contamination at the site, the developer said in an interview Friday.

Meanwhile, a proposal to guarantee more affordable housing on American Street from the area’s councilmember, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who has sought to transform the industrial corridor into an area welcoming to commercial and residential development, is being significantly altered to give the community more say in what’s built there, her office reported. Quiñones-Sánchez reported the shift in plans, and that she was withdrawing entirely another bill that would have paved the way for the apartment complex, during a meeting with community groups Thursday night.

“There is still much work to be done to ensure affordability in a diverse mixed-income community while preserving the neighborhood’s rich history,” she said Saturday.

» READ MORE: A plan to control development in North Philly heightens gentrification fears: ‘Everything is in jeopardy’

The news shifted the tone Saturday of what was supposed to be a protest against the bill at César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden. The gathering turned into a celebration for members of the community concerned the apartment development would hasten gentrification in the area.

“This is a culmination of efforts we put together to help the people keep what they have,” said Anthony Patrick, 34.

Quiñones-Sánchez has said that with developers snapping up the many vacant properties in the community, rezoning offered a way for the city to ensure that the flurry of development included affordable units and restrictions that would benefit the people living in the community. Meanwhile, American Street has never lived up to its promise as an industrial hub for the city, she has said.

The rezoning would have required developers who got permission to build mixed residential and commercial development on American Street from Oxford Street to Lehigh Avenue to include an affordable housing element. That stretch of American Street currently is zoned only for light industrial development. Now, her staff reported, any mixed-use development would need to consult with local community organizations and would still need to seek a variance, which would allow the opportunity for community input. The proposal would also require any residential development to set aside 20% of its units as affordable housing, market those units to people living in the community first, and provide a plan for commercial space to generate local jobs.

Communities on both sides of American Street are in a state of flux. For decades they’ve been poor and economically disadvantaged, but in recent years grassroots revitalization efforts have been overtaken by Philadelphia’s hot development scene. At the center of the tension is the neighborhood’s wealth of vacant properties. After years of demolition, Philadelphia owns hundreds of vacant lots in the area that over the years have been unofficially adopted in the heavily Latino community as side yards and community gardens. Many there would like to see them stay that way, while others see them as opportunity for revitalization, housing, and tax revenue.

» READ MORE: In fast-developing corner of North Philly, vacant lots become priceless

Keeping land undeveloped means it won’t be used to its full potential, said Michael Scannapieco, who represents the apartment complex’s developer Urban Intent, an affiliate of Scannapieco Development Corp. Leaving the lots vacant, he said, ultimately boosts the cost of housing for everyone else.

“All that does is put upward pressure on land prices,” he said.

Philadelphia issued eight times as many building permits in 2019 as in 2015 in just one census tract in the neighborhood. The median home price as of August was $140,000, according to the real estate site Zillow, almost double what it was in August 2010.

The people who maintain Iglesias Garden, though, see the land as valuable without anything on it. The garden has a tenuous existence, planted on vacant lots owned by both the city and private interests. New housing may create tax revenue, Patrick said, but the open land could also be used for other community needs, including rec centers and open space. The community gardens that have taken over so many of the vacant lots mitigate poverty for the neighborhood as well by providing produce.

“That’s time, effort, and money they don’t have to spend in a supermarket,” he said.

The garden’s tenders, many of them affiliated with the Philly Socialists, have fought the two zoning bills, calling the one that would have allowed the apartment complex an example of spot zoning.

“I see it as a win,” said Mara Henao, one of the opponents of the bill. “What they were trying to do with that bill is illegal.”

Urban Intent abandoned the plan for apartments at 265 W. Berks St., the former site of Morris Iron & Steel, in part due to concerns about possible environmental contamination there, Scannapieco said. Other factors included the risk from the coronavirus, and the soon-to-expire 10-year tax abatement from the city. He said the company was still interested in developing affordable homes on adjacent property in cooperation with Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, a neighborhood nonprofit.

That development has been described as including 40 rowhouses, but APM’s president and executive director, Nilda Iris Ruiz, said recently that the details of the project are not finalized. The organization is experimenting with the idea of developing market-rate housing to subsidize concurrently planned affordable units, she said, but the organization is itself in a race with private developers to use vacant land held by the city.

“Lots have been taken by for-profit developers,” she said. “The amount of lots we were counting on are now less.”