Of all the lots in Philadelphia to sit vacant, the patch of land at Ninth and Wharton Streets has long been more puzzling than most.

The lot — measuring more than 9,000 square feet — offers more than enough space for a developer to plop down new housing, stores, or a park. The site, in the heart of Philadelphia’s cheesesteak capital, couldn’t be in a better trafficked area. Situated directly across from Pat’s King of Steaks, with Geno’s Steaks in the near distance, the corner has hungry patrons flocking around the clock in this otherwise largely residential neighborhood.

But since the early 1990s, when an abandoned Slovak church on the site was demolished, 829 Wharton St. in Passyunk Square has been vacant. It’s had brief stints as a mini golf course and a beer garden as the neighborhood has surged in popularity, but otherwise has sat empty, a chain-link fence surrounding the periodically overgrown lot.

To be sure, development has been attempted over the years. When South Philadelphia native Joseph Gatta Jr. purchased the church — built in 1864 as Wharton Street Presbyterian before transitioning to the Catholic St. John Nepomucene parish — he had plans to demolish it and build a White Castle hamburger stand, with a 24-hour drive-through. Neighbors vehemently protested, but the city Zoning Board of Adjustment said yes. Ultimately, however, the restaurant was never built.

Then, in 2015, developer Paul Mirabello proposed a four-story apartment complex, with ground-floor stores. Neighbors again protested, arguing that the project would bring too much traffic to an already hectic intersection. This time, the zoning board sided with residents.

Fights such as this have become a familiar story in Philadelphia, as neighborhoods that for decades experienced little change suddenly see new interest. Passyunk Square — which stretches from Broad to Sixth Street, and from Washington Avenue to Tasker Street — is a notable example, as once a place where many Italian American families lived for decades on cozy rowhouse blocks. Today, the neighborhood is a melting pot of cultures, with a flourishing restaurant scene and new, younger, and more diverse residents. As a result, demand for housing has increased — and developers have come flocking.

At Ninth and Wharton, this tension between old and new Philadelphia has played out in recent years, as a developer proposal emerged for the third time in nearly three decades.

This time, however, the story may end differently.

The overgrown lot at the corner of Ninth and Wharton Streets has been vacant for nearly three decades. Plans for development may be finally moving forward.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
The overgrown lot at the corner of Ninth and Wharton Streets has been vacant for nearly three decades. Plans for development may be finally moving forward.

Zoning and use permits were issued last month for 829 Wharton St., as well as 827 Wharton St., a rowhouse next door that was torn down after a demolition permit was secured in May. The new permits show plans to build a mid-rise apartment building facing Ninth Street — directly across from Pat’s — with retail on the first floor. Twelve bicycle parking spaces will be a part of the development.

In addition, permits show, three single-family rowhouses will be built along Wharton Street, all of which will stand 38 feet tall, and have a roof deck. (Both 827 and 829 Wharton St. were subdivided, according to permits issued in June, to create four separate lots for the entire project.)

The zoning permits largely reflect plans proposed last year by Hightop Real Estate & Development, a Philadelphia-based company led by developer David Landskroner. Last spring, Hightop proposed building 21 apartments on the site, plus three rowhouses — a plan that drew praise from some neighbors who desperately wanted to see the lot developed, yet sharp criticism from others. To make his project work, however, Hightop needed a zoning variance.

The planned apartment building will directly face Pat's King of Steaks and will be just down the block from Geno's Steaks, pictured in the background here.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
The planned apartment building will directly face Pat's King of Steaks and will be just down the block from Geno's Steaks, pictured in the background here.

Last year, the zoning board granted Hightop’s request — with a tiny hiccup. Hightop’s lawyer, Michael Phillips, of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, said Wednesday that the board mistakenly granted variances on an older version of Hightop’s plans — meaning the zoning permits on the city’s website show building dimensions and density slightly different from what Hightop plans to build.

Landskroner said Wednesday that Hightop still plans to follow through on its plans for the 21 apartments, plus three townhouses. He said he expects three storefronts to face Ninth Street.

Today, Hightop’s website touts “Wharton Flats,” a mixed-use construction project “located across the street from the iconic Pat’s and Geno’s Steakhouses." The website notes that the project was the result of “a collaborative development process.”

“Hightop spent eight-plus months with the community understanding their concerns and desires,” the website says.

The Singing Fountain, where 11th and Tasker Streets crosses Passyunk Avenue. Passyunk Square has long been known as a neighborhood of longtime residents, but its flourishing restaurant scene has helped lead to a surge of popularity for the area.
DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
The Singing Fountain, where 11th and Tasker Streets crosses Passyunk Avenue. Passyunk Square has long been known as a neighborhood of longtime residents, but its flourishing restaurant scene has helped lead to a surge of popularity for the area.

According to some Passyunk Square neighbors, the final “Wharton Flats” is, in fact, a compromise: When Hightop initially put the properties under agreement of sale, the group proposed 30 apartments, plus a handful of parking spaces. Some neighbors criticized the plan as too dense. Others worried that the curb cut needed for the parking spaces would take away on-street parking for longtime residents. Others, meanwhile, said they wanted Wharton Street to retain its residential character.

Landskroner, in an interview this week, said it was important to have a “win-win situation and solution" that allows "for what people want and what works best for the developer.” As a result, he subtracted the vehicle parking spaces and added the townhouses to allow Wharton Street to remain a single-family rowhouse block.

A handful of longtime residents told The Inquirer last year that they remained concerned about the project’s density and about the traffic and parking problems that the development could cause. This month, many did not return calls or declined to comment.

Even with the zoning permits, Hightop still must apply for another round of building permits before construction can begin. Landskroner said his team would like to get started “in the coming months” and anticipates that the project should be completed in the next 12 to 14 months.

Real estate documents show that 827 and 829 Wharton St. were purchased in June — before they were subdivided — for $1. Landskroner said that figure was not accurate, but declined to say how much the properties cost. The properties were assessed this year at more than $860,000.

The lots were purchased under the name 9th & Wharton Street LP, records show. That company is a joint venture between Hightop and Abrams Realty & Development — founded by Peter Abrams — which will be a partner in the project.

The 800 block of Wharton Street has long been defined by single-family rowhouses. A new development proposal plans to keep the character of the block intact. The rowhouse at 827 Wharton St. was demolished earlier this year to make way for a new single-family home. That lot is pictured to the left.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
The 800 block of Wharton Street has long been defined by single-family rowhouses. A new development proposal plans to keep the character of the block intact. The rowhouse at 827 Wharton St. was demolished earlier this year to make way for a new single-family home. That lot is pictured to the left.

Beyond the planned development of Ninth and Wharton Streets, Passyunk Square has seen a number of other significant projects in recent years. Midwood Investment & Development of New York is planning an apartment building at the corner of Ninth Street and Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia’s Italian Market. And a new apartment building at 13th and Reed Streets — with an industrial-inspired aesthetic — has garnered rave reviews for its design, Sarah Anton, president of the board of directors for the Passyunk Square Civic Association, told The Inquirer earlier this year.

“I think a lot of people are just tired of seeing empty lots in the neighborhood,” Anton said this week. “And people have different opinions about density and whether that’s a good or bad thing. But there are not enough places to live for people who want to live here. Giving people access to this neighborhood is important to a lot of folks.”

The increased development and demand for housing in the neighborhood — and across the city — has had an effect on housing prices, data show. The median price of a single-family home in Passyunk Square in 2018 was $335,000, according to data from Kevin Gillen, an economist and senior research fellow at Drexel University. That’s a 46% increase from 2014, when the median price was $229,000.

The lot at the corner of Ninth and Wharton Streets has been vacant for nearly three decades. It is located next to one of Philadelphia's most prominent tourist attractions.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
The lot at the corner of Ninth and Wharton Streets has been vacant for nearly three decades. It is located next to one of Philadelphia's most prominent tourist attractions.