Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Councilmember Gauthier attempts end run around court ruling against affordable homes

After a multiyear fight over an affordable housing development, Councilmember Jamie Gauthier is attempting to intervene legislatively to allow the West Philly project.

The compromise agreement on Omni's affordable-housing apartment project would put a large surface parking lot in front of the buildings.
The compromise agreement on Omni's affordable-housing apartment project would put a large surface parking lot in front of the buildings.Read moreJKRP Architects

After two years of fraught community meetings and lawsuits, the long saga of Omni New York’s effort to build affordable apartments at 50th and Warrington Streets may finally be reaching its conclusion.

At Thursday’s City Council meeting, West Philadelphia Councilmember Jamie Gauthier introduced legislation that would tweak the zoning on the industrially zoned lot at 5000 Warrington to allow a 104-unit apartment building to move forward.

“We are in the midst of the worst affordable housing crisis this city has ever seen — which is why we need to enable the creation of new affordable housing developments in our communities,” Gauthier said. “I am proud to create a path for such an important project.”

Gauthier notes that a deed restriction legally requires the site to offer 100% affordable housing. The legislation includes provisions that time-limit the zoning change to align with the financing schedules of the state government funding programs Omni hopes to tap into. If a permit is not pulled before the legislation expires, the previous zoning will return to the land.

In 2020, Omni, a prominent national affordable housing developer, began exploring development at this hulking derelict warehouse site in one of West Philadelphia’s most quickly appreciating neighborhoods. Its original design would have offered 174 units and 55 parking spaces in three buildings with retail offerings fronting the sidewalk.

Some neighbors objected to the size — the six-story apartments are a couple stories taller than nearby rowhouses — and the lack of one-for-one parking, despite the neighborhood’s status as one of Philadelphia’s most walkable and transit-accessible neighborhoods.

In response, Omni reduced the size of the buildings to 104 units and pushed them back against a nearby rail line so they would be farther from neighboring homes. Instead of retail by the sidewalk, the revised plan included a sprawling surface parking lot with one space for every housing unit — even though critics of the changes noted that lower-income renters in the surrounding area were unlikely to own cars.

In 2021, The Inquirer’s architecture critic, Inga Saffron, called the new design “a bad deal for everyone concerned.”

Neighborhood groups were mostly happy with the compromise, however.

“Initially I was totally opposed to the project because I felt it didn’t give anything to the community,” said Gregory Benjamin, head of the 51st Democratic Ward, the lead neighborhood organization for the site. “But with this affordability being something that would be a win for renters in the community, I’m just taking a look and see attitude.”

Even this radically remade vision for the building did not appease some opponents of the project. One near neighbor, Melissa V. Johanningmeier, sued the Zoning Board of Adjustment when it issued approvals for the project.

At the beginning of this year, Common Pleas Court Judge Anne Marie Coyle ruled in Johanningmeier’s favor, throwing out the zoning board’s decision that enabled Omni to move ahead. In her ruling, she noted that the new buildings “would unequivocally tower over the surrounding family homes.” (Coyle has repeatedly decided against the ZBA’s rulings in recent months.)

Gauthier’s legislation introduced Thursday would essentially obviate Coyle’s ruling, removing the need for a zoning variance and allowing Omni to finally move forward.

“I’m really happy our Council member is stepping in to ensure that affordable units remain in this section of Philadelphia,” said Will Tung, a nearby block captain and a volunteer with the urbanist group 5th Square. “The project isn’t ideal. It has way too much parking, but that’s not the fight we’re picking. I’m really glad Jamie is taking a stand here.”

Omni did not respond to a request for comment, but its zoning lawyer, Peter Kelsen of Blank Rome, confirmed that the design was unchanged from what had been approved by the zoning board. Any further changes would be “very minor if at all — nothing material.”

Tung said that Omni had made some tweaks last year, including adding pedestrian-access points on 50th Street (which is on the way to one of the nearby trolley lines) and some outdoor communal space.

“They didn’t just increase the parking. They also added a little playground on the south side and pedestrian access, so people in those units don’t have to walk across an entire sea of parking to get to the trolley,” said Tung.