A developer has paused plans for a 30-unit apartment complex in a West Philadelphia rowhouse neighborhood, the culmination of a year of community opposition that included a recent rally and a petition to city government.

Though wary, concerned residents said the shift could establish an important precedent that developers negotiate with the community — whether they’re required to or not.

“They don’t live and work inside a vacuum, and it’s not OK for them to just come and disrupt somebody’s community,” said Malyka Sankofa, an opponent of the plan who lives at 50th and Pine Streets. “We’re not talking about them coming to build a couple houses. We’re talking about a huge apartment complex.”

Discussions could center on including affordable units in the development, said Nino Cutrufello, development director for the developer, Callahan Ward Cos. The plan currently includes one- and two-bedroom apartments that would rent at market rate.

The developer agreed to hear out the residents after opponents staged a rally July 27 in Malcolm X Park that drew about 200 people. And then on Wednesday, they mailed a petition with more than 1,300 signatures to the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections and the Fire Department, asking the city to block the building permit for the site.

At issue is a 16,655-square-foot plot tucked behind homes along 51st Street from Spruce to Pine Streets. Barely visible through alleys between homes is a crumbling, roofless, vine-ensnared brick garage, a sprawling remnant from more than a century ago. It hasn’t been used for about four years, neighbors said. The only access is a 14-foot-wide driveway off 51st Street.

The developer bought the land through Garden Court Ventures for $450,000 last June. A new three-story complex would include the apartments and three commercial spaces. About 65% of the existing garage walls would be reinforced and preserved, the developer said.

Construction was scheduled to be complete in 2021.

“I am sorry that communication between our groups has not been what either of us would have preferred,” Cutrufello wrote in an email to the project’s opponents Monday, “but please know that we have hit the PAUSE button with our plans until we meet with the community.”

Opponents and the developer are seeking to arrange a virtual meeting this month.

Opponents of a 30-unit apartment development off 51st Street in West Philadelphia gathered at Malcolm X Park on July 27 to rally against the project.
Jason Laughlin / Staff
Opponents of a 30-unit apartment development off 51st Street in West Philadelphia gathered at Malcolm X Park on July 27 to rally against the project.

The pause, though, comes long after residents urged former City Councilmember Jannie Blackwell to rezone the property to prevent exactly this kind of dense development. Blackwell didn’t act on those requests quickly enough before she left office at the end of 2019, so the developer’s plans are entirely permissible under the current zoning.

“The fact that the Council person, people, didn’t do what they were supposed to do in terms of the zoning of it, that just gave developers an opportunity,” said Ronald Johnson, who lives on Spruce Street next door to his childhood home, which doubled as his father’s medical office.

Johnson, 66, recalled playing in that garage as a child. When his family came to the area while his father was in medical school, they were initially denied access to student housing because they were Black, he said.

Ronald G. Johnson in front of his home in West Philadelphia. He is opposed to future apartment construction nearby.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Ronald G. Johnson in front of his home in West Philadelphia. He is opposed to future apartment construction nearby.

Blackwell’s successor in the Third District, Jamie Gauthier, sees the proposed 51st Street development as a reminder of the need for a comprehensive, community-driven West Philadelphia zoning plan that she would like Council to vote on by the end of the year.

“We need to go through in a very thorough way to make sure the zoning in our neighborhood is appropriate for the uses that pop up and also that the zoning reflects the kind of community we want to build,” she said.

Construction has exploded in her district, which encompasses much of West and Southwest Philadelphia, with the city issuing 7,167 building and zoning permits in that district in 2019, according to city records, almost twice as many as 10 years ago.

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In the last decade, the median home price in the 19143 zip code rose from the upper $90,000 range to about $133,000, according to the real estate site Zillow.

Many homes are still single-family, and apartments are mostly in subdivided rowhouses. The development would be about the same height as the three-story homes around it, Cutrufello said, and was designed to be respectful of the surrounding community.

Even if the development added needed affordable units, Sankofa said, the density would remain unwelcomed. Neighbors’ concerns range from the number of street parking spaces for the renters to the role the new building could play in exacerbating changes in a neighborhood that, for decades, has been a haven for Black families.

Residents are concerned that the steadily increasing home prices, which have come hand in hand with an increase of white residents, make it harder for the children and grandchildren of Black residents to stay in the community.

“I’ve been seeing the community change from a mixed community to a Black community back to a mixed community,” said Judy Ruley, one of the leaders of the opposition to the development. “That’s not a big problem to have mixed neighborhoods and mixed people, because that’s a great neighborhood to have diversity in your community. But to have a 33-unit apartment building with one driveway with people coming and going?”

Some fear that the development could irrevocably change the neighborhood.

“It’s generally a pretty quiet neighborhood, and my fear is that’s going to go away,” said Lori Miceli, who, with her husband, bought a house 10 years ago whose back yard abuts the garage property.

They are parents to a 2-year-old, she said, and don’t want the disruption from construction. “We’re probably not going to stick around once this is in here,” she said.

Residents and activists under the umbrella of West Philadelphia Neighbors for Healthy Community Development have focused their concerns on a possible fire hazard and the environmental legacy of the garage.

Since the site’s sole access is the short driveway on 51st Street, the property’s neighbors fear that a fire there could quickly spread.

Inside a garage off 51st Street in West Philadelphia, slated to be redeveloped into a 30-apartment complex. People living nearby are concerned that the density is out of proportion with the surrounding homes.
photo courtesy of Callahan Ward Companies
Inside a garage off 51st Street in West Philadelphia, slated to be redeveloped into a 30-apartment complex. People living nearby are concerned that the density is out of proportion with the surrounding homes.

“If something happens back there, it’s going to affect all of us,” Ruley said. “If a fire starts, our wooden houses, our brick houses are going to catch fire.”

City fire code does not require more than one path of entrance and exit from a site, said Kelly Cofrancisco, a city spokesperson. Cutrufello said in an e-mailed statement that the new building would have sprinklers and standpipes to suppress fires.

Residents also are concerned about pollutants that construction could stir up on the site that was an auto body shop for decades. There are vestiges of the garage’s industrial use, including an inground hydraulic lift and old gas tank, according to an environmental survey conducted by Callahan Ward.

Broke in Philly.
Staff
Broke in Philly.

That survey, though, found no signs of pollutants in all but one of 16 boring sites, and the one positive test result showed levels of benzene well below the amounts that would require environmental remediation. Exposure to toxic levels of benzene can cause anemia and damage to bone marrow and the immune system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Plan opponents are concerned that construction could unearth other pollutants and noted that the tests didn’t check for heavy metals. The company said it followed state Department of Environmental Protection guidelines in its testing.

Gauthier, who has a master’s degree in city planning, said her district has many examples of mismatched development, where one side of a street permits very different kinds of buildings from another.

A zoning plan, she said, would also be an opportunity to address concerns that the neighborhood was becoming unaffordable for the people who grew up there. Philadelphia has no affordable housing requirement for private development that does not use city land or subsidies. It’s something she’d like to change.

“Real estate and who owns it and what the owners do with it has a dramatic impact on the whole neighborhood,” Gauthier said. “We can’t just let the market determine whether people are going to be able to live in West and Southwest Philadelphia, or in many other areas of the city.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.