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Across from Philadelphia's cheesesteak mecca, a South Philly neighborhood fights over its future

At the intersection of Pat's and Geno's, a vacant lot has sat untouched for years. Now, residents are fighting over what should happen to it after a local developer put forth a plan to build 21 apartments, three rowhouses, and 5,300 square feet of commercial space.

Across from Pat’s King of Steaks, a grassy, vacant lot, pictured on the right, has sat untouched for years. Now, residents are fighting over what should be built there.
Across from Pat’s King of Steaks, a grassy, vacant lot, pictured on the right, has sat untouched for years. Now, residents are fighting over what should be built there.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The corner of Ninth and East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia is no stranger to crowds.

On game days, weekends, and warm summer evenings, tourists, celebrities, and Philadelphians alike flock to the intersection, seeking ribbons of steak oozing with cheese. Here, at this Passyunk Square junction anchored by Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's Steaks, double-parked cars are frequent. Lines of hungry visitors occasionally wrap around the block.

Which is why, according to some residents who live nearby, this already gentrifying area can't handle much more development. Parking is already problematic, they contend, and traffic around the cheesesteak joints seems only to magnify. A developer's proposal to build three rowhouses and 21 apartments atop 5,300 square feet of new commercial space just steps from the busy intersection could only make it worse, they say.

The tussle over the future of 827 and 829 Wharton St., directly across from Pat's, however, is no unified standoff between  residents and a developer — and this, no typical South Philadelphia block. While a handful of residents fiercely oppose the single- and multifamily project that Philadelphia-based Hightop Real Estate & Development wants to build, a large group of residents supports it. Passyunk Square deserves more than a crumbling, blighted rowhouse and vacant land, residents who support the project argue. And tourists — who are seeking not just a meal, but instead, a pilgrimage to the cheesesteak mecca — deserve better, too, they say.

The tensions playing out on this Passyunk Square block between maintaining the status quo and development — between the old and new Philadelphia — underscore the questions that communities are confronting as gentrification pressures spread citywide. As neighborhoods and commercial corridors such as East Passyunk Avenue continue to experience new vibrancy, longtime Philadelphians are seeing the places they have lived for decades continue to change around them as they encounter new voices weighing in on decisions that were once only theirs to make.

"A lot of people who are in support of this, a lot of them live two, three, four blocks away, which doesn't directly affect them — why do [they] care?" asked Toni Pelosi, 61, a medical technician who has lived on the 800 block of Wharton Street for 40 years, just a few rowhouses from the potential development. "… We don't have a problem with the [commercial space] or the rowhouses, we just have a problem with the sheer number of apartments. The neighborhood can't absorb that additional traffic."

Like many Philadelphia neighborhoods within the last few years, Passyunk Square has experienced significant change. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, the median household income in Passyunk Square — defined as the neighborhood that stretches from Broad to Sixth Street and from Washington Avenue to Tasker Street  jumped 34 percent between 2000 and 2014, to $50,813. Similarly, the median price of a home in the neighborhood jumped 9 percent between 2016 and 2017 alone — and nearly 51 percent compared with a decade ago, according to data from Philadelphia economist Kevin Gillen.

The influx of wealthier residents has diversified the demographics of this historically Italian neighborhood — and along with it, has shifted some of the real estate market. In recent years, developers have added luxury apartments, such as the Wharton Street Lofts, and have completed significant rowhouse rehabs in the neighborhood.

The proposed development at Ninth and Wharton Streets would be another addition.

Despite vocal opposition from Pelosi and some of her close neighbors, many area residents argue that the development's opponents are a minority. Evidence of that fact, they say: At a recent April meeting for the Passyunk Square Civic Association, a registered community organization in the area, residents in attendance voted 20-3 to support the development.

"Pat's and Geno's are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — it's just an incredibly vibrant area," said Ken Metzner, executive director of Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers (KYLD), a dance center just a stone's throw from the potential development site. "I find it extraordinary that as a World Heritage City, the [vacant lot] is what we show to the world."

"From my own personal perspective, I've gone to all of the neighborhood meetings, and this developer has been extraordinarily attentive to the input from the neighbors and has modified this project accordingly," Metzner continued. "I think it seems like a very appropriately scaled project for that lot in its current form."

Making its decision after the residents' vote, the civic association's zoning committee voted 5-4 this month to "not oppose" the development. Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district includes the site, wrote in an April 17 letter to Philadephia's Zoning Board of Adjustment that he would "leave the final decision up to the" ZBA after hearing from both opponents and advocates of the proposal.

Support from numerous neighbors and the civic association's zoning committee represents a sharp change from just a few years ago, when a large majority of residents opposed a different plan, from developer Paul Mirabello, to build a multifamily building on the site. In spring 2015, Mirabello proposed building stores and apartments on the two Wharton Street lots, which offer a combined 9,400 square feet of land.

In October 2014, city records show, Mirabello purchased 827 and 829 Wharton St. for $275,000 and nearly $1.23 million, respectively, and sought a variance from the zoning board to build five retail stores facing Pat's, with apartments on top. Amid severe resident push-back to the plan, his request was denied by Philadelphia's zoning officials in 2015.

In November, after years of inactivity on the site — excluding a brief pop-up garden by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society — David Landskroner, owner of Hightop Real Estate & Development, put the parcels under contract for an undisclosed price. The deal's closing is contingent upon receiving the zoning variance he needs from the city to make his project work, said Landskroner's lawyer, Michael Phillips of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel.

Similar to the developer before him, Landskroner this month sought a variance from the ZBA that would allow him to build a multifamily building facing Pat's on Ninth Street, with 5,300 square feet of retail on the ground floor (supporting one or two businesses), and 21 one- and two-bedroom units on the three floors atop it. On the Wharton Street side of the parcels, Landskroner plans to demolish the crumbling rowhouse at 827 Wharton St. and build three rowhouses that are each 25 feet wide, Phillips said. A small patch of green space would be located on the corner at Ninth and Wharton Streets. No parking is proposed as part of the current plan, though Landskroner has proposed 12 bicycle parking spaces in the basement of the mixed-use building.

According to residents and Phillips, the current plan is a significantly scaled down version from what Landskroner originally proposed. After putting the sites under contract in the fall, Landskroner called a meeting to pitch a development that would have been an exclusively mixed-use building, with ground-floor commercial and 30 residential units, plus a handful of parking spaces.

Immediately, however, the plan faced opposition. Thirty apartment units were too many, some said. Some wanted the 800 block of Wharton Street to remain exclusively rowhouses. Others said parking spaces would create more problems and safety concerns due to the curb cuts Landskroner's team had designed. Others simply wanted less of everything.

Little by little, the project was whittled down, decreasing the number of proposed apartments and increasing the number of rowhouses to appease residents who wanted the parcel to retain some residential character. On April 18, Landskroner went before the ZBA.

Its decision: nothing yet.

According to city records, the ZBA held off on a vote and directed the developer to meet with the community and come to more of an agreement before the board considers the matter again. Asked whether he would be willing to further reduce the size of his proposal, Landskroner on Wednesday declined to comment.

"When you think of Philadelphia, you think of Pat's and Geno's, one of our biggest tourist spots where visitors come all the time to eat, and all they see right across the street is a vacant lot," Landskroner said. "… Philadelphia is better than that. That's why I was drawn to the parcel."