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Philadelphia expected the Rail Park to generate new development. Instead, we might get a self-storage facility. | Inga Saffron

And now the city is suing its own Zoning Board over the decision.

Despite years of planning efforts to create more density near high-volume transit stations, Metro Development just won a variance to build a self-storage facillity steps from the Spring Garden stop of the Broad Street line.
Despite years of planning efforts to create more density near high-volume transit stations, Metro Development just won a variance to build a self-storage facillity steps from the Spring Garden stop of the Broad Street line.Read moreJKRP

Who makes planning policy in this town?

Hint: It's not the Philadelphia Planning Commission.

Sure, the commission just wrapped up a citywide master plan, a project that took six long years and includes 18 individualized neighborhood plans. It's busy redrawing the city's zoning maps to reflect a new commitment to density and walkability. Only last week, it issued an important new housing report that calls for beefing up density around transit stations.

But none of that matters to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the agency that, thanks to the peculiarities of the city's Home Rule Charter, has the last word on Philadelphia's land-use issues. The current zoning board, chaired by the lobbyist and former Councilman Frank DiCicco, routinely tosses the commission's detailed reports in the trash with a wink and a smirk, and then goes about making planning policy on the fly.

The board did it again Oct. 3 when it voted by 5-0 to allow Michael Grasso's Metro Development to install a self-storage facility at Broad and Spring Garden Streets. Because those storage operations generate no foot traffic, they create a dead zone in the middle of urban neighborhoods. His would have a retail tenant on the ground floor, but that's not enough to bring life to the project. No self-respecting city allows storage units downtown, and happily, they are prohibited in most of Center City.

Grasso's property at 1314-32 Spring Garden occupies the far edge of the central core, in an area that should be a thriving commercial and residential district. In case you're having trouble picturing it, the site is 50 paces from the Broad Street Line, a 10-minute stroll from City Hall, three short blocks from the new Rail Park. You know, the $10 million showpiece that is supposed to help jump-start development in the former industrial quadrant north of Vine Street.

Under the current zoning, Grasso could legally build just about anything on this piece of ground. An apartment tower. An office building. Rowhouses. When the 2,000-square-foot surface parking lot was remapped in 2015, it was assigned one of the city's densest zoning classifications, CMX-4. Grasso also has more financial wiggle room than many developers. Unlike his colleagues, who have to pay a king's ransom to get their hands on a well-located site, Grasso picked up this one in 1994 for $350,000. That's peanuts in today's market.

The Planning Commission vigorously objected when Grasso put forward his proposal for the giant public closet on Spring Garden's eclectic boulevard. So did the Callowhill Neighborhood Association. Councilman Mark Squilla also weighed in, urging the zoning board to reject Grasso's variance request.

Yet members ignored them, even the district councilperson, and handed Grasso his variance on a silver platter.  (Hey, doesn't councilmanic prerogative mean anything anymore?)

It's not the first time since Mayor Kenney took office that the board has handed down a decision that runs contrary to the rules of good planning. To the astonishment of just about everyone, its members last year tried to block the Post Bros. company  — considered Public Enemy No. 1 by Philadelphia's powerful construction unions — from turning an empty warehouse at Ninth and Poplar Streets into apartments, even though dozens of similar buildings in Philadelphia have been converted to residential use. The zoning board's ruling was later overturned by the courts.

This one could be, too. The city has elected to appeal the decision of its own agency, according to a statement provided by Anne Fadullon, who runs the Department of Planning and Development. While this isn't the first time the city has sued itself, it's not exactly a regular occurrence.

Does that mean the zoning board has gone rogue? All its members were appointed by Kenney. While they are meant to operate free of political interference, one would presume the mayor would select members who subscribe to his administration's policy goals. Fadullon, also a Kenney appointee, has been an advocate for density, good urbanism, and affordable housing.

Listen to her view on the board's vote, which came in a statement: "Spring Garden should be part of a vibrant, mixed-use corridor. It is zoned to accomplish that goal. A storage facility, however, would create a dead spot in what should be a thriving neighborhood."

The thing about variances is that they are not automatic. Developers have to earn them by proving the existing zoning rules are impossible to sustain without incurring financial hardship.

What was Grasso's hardship? The operator of the proposed self-storage facility, Johnson Development Associates, pointed to the drug rehab center next door. But the presence of Gaudenzia hasn't stopped other developers — Eric Blumenfeld, Bart Blatstein, Arts & Crafts Holdings — from bringing in housing and offices.

Just this week, Blumenfeld announced his desire to construct a 30-story skyscraper across the street from Grasso's parking lot and next to his Mural Lofts apartments. Blatstein installed 200 apartments in the former State Office Building at the corner of Broad. Why, even Grasso himself has developed a condo tower on the block. He also played down the presence of  Gaudenzia, despite the operator's claims of hardship. "Gaudenzia is a great neighbor," he told me. "With all these new apartments coming on board, there's a need for self-storage."

That's his view, but there is no reason the zoning board should buy into it.

The board's decision has implications that go far beyond this one project. Grasso, who has been working as a developer since the '70s, owns, by his count, 40 properties on Spring Garden. This summer, he proposed a project for a huge surface parking lot at Front Street that violates a decade of waterfront planning: a combination Wawa gas station and 320-car parking garage. Of course, he needs a variance for that.

Grasso's main interest seems to be in bagging retail tenants. The six-story self-storage facility provides him with a 10,000-square-foot retail space. While that's better than just a blank-faced self-storage building, it still doesn't justify the project.

If we keep giving out variances, the Spring Garden Street corridor would be turned into a  suburban strip, lined with drive-in convenience stores.

The planning commission has spent years refining its zoning code to ensure that Philadelphia remains the dense, lively, urban place it was meant to be. Thousands of citizens helped create those policies by attending public hearings. Radical change shouldn't be made by one developer. Mayor Kenney, whom do you want making policy — the experts or an out-of-control zoning board?