In her short time on City Council, West Philadelphia’s Jamie Gauthier has emerged as one of its biggest champions of privately built affordable housing. Together with Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, she has crafted several bills that would give zoning bonuses to developers who set aside reduced-price apartments for low-income renters.
So when a well-known New York developer showed her plans for a building where every apartment would rent at below-market rates, she embraced the proposal as a model for her fast-changing district.
The developer, Omni New York, had acquired the rights to a junkyard at 50th and Warrington, which sits on the scrimmage line for the neighborhood’s creeping gentrification. Over the last decade, Gauthier has watched as the Black population in that census tract has shrunk by 23%. Increasing numbers of middle-class buyers have been moving into the area straddling Cedar Park and Kingsessing, drawn by the charming — and still modestly priced — porch-fronted rowhouses. Developers have followed, bringing luxury apartments like The Irvine to a neighborhood once plagued by prostitutes and drug dealers.
Like many housing advocates, Gauthier believes the best way to mitigate such demographic change is to lock in a stock of affordable housing before land prices skyrocket. Because Omni was promising three-bedroom apartments for as little as $400 a month to qualified renters, Gauthier told me she felt the project could help low-income families remain in Cedar Park and enjoy the improvements — like better shops and schools — that come with gentrification. She also noted that the Omni site is perfectly located, at the nexus of several trolley, bus and train lines, making it easier for residents to get around without cars.
But the reception to Omni’s original proposal for a 174-unit apartment house was anything but welcoming. In community meetings, residents from an assortment of neighborhood groups railed against the building’s height (six stories) and modest parking count (55 spaces). They asserted that the project is really a market-rate building in affordable clothing, since a family of four earning $77,000 could theoretically qualify to live there.
Those groups then did what neighborhood groups do: They negotiated with the developer to modify its proposal. Omni, which needs a variance or zoning change to make the project feasible, agreed to virtually all their requests.
And now the design is worse. Much worse.
When residents complained that Omni’s three proposed buildings were too tall and too dense and would dwarf the two-story homes on 50th Street, Omni knocked the unit count down from 174 to 100.
When neighbors argued that there wasn’t enough parking, Omni boosted the number of spaces to 100 — one for every apartment.
Omni’s original design wasn’t without flaws, but at least the renderings showed what looked like a true urban building. The apartments would come to the sidewalk and include retail space on the ground floor, which is exactly the form that new buildings should take in Philadelphia.
But after neighbors on 50th Street said that their sunlight would be blocked, Omni consolidated the apartments into two buildings and pushed them to the far reaches of the site. As a result, the current design shows a sprawling parking lot facing houses on both 50th and Warrington Streets. And because the buildings are pushed against SEPTA’s elevated, Media/Elwyn rail line, future residents will be subjected to the noise of trains passing just inches from their windows.
The Omni saga demonstrates just how hard it is to get Philadelphia residents to accept affordable housing developments, even in parts of the city where residents say they are worried about being priced out by gentrification. Unlike neighborhoods where battles over development have been going on for years, the intense back-and-forth with Omni was a new experience for many. But they were forced to go it alone because, as city spokesman Paul Chrystie told me, the Philadelphia planning department prefers not to get involved until projects come before the Civic Design board for review.
Gauthier acknowledged that the new design, especially the giant parking lot, “is not exactly what I was thinking,” but she is willing to accept the community’s wishes. “If this is what it takes for the near neighbors to be OK with having major affordability, then I’m OK with it,” she told me.
I would argue the revised design is actually a bad deal for everyone concerned — for the neighborhood, for the project’s future residents, for anyone who values Philadelphia’s gracious, walkable streets. We know that part of what gave ‘60s-era public housing such a bad name was its hostile, anti-urban form. The lack of street-fronting buildings, together with large desolate areas, made them forbidding places, prone to crime. The best way to convince the public that affordable housing is good for everybody is to make sure it looks and functions as well as market-rate housing (if not better).
Still, I can understand why Omni’s original design made residents like Nadira Branch, who bought her house on 50th Street in 2009, uncomfortable. Several multistory apartment buildings have gone up nearby in just the last few years, and figuring out how to manage the influx of development has been difficult.
“The community is scared,” she told me. “We’re not experts. We’re not architects.”
Omni’s original proposal for a six-story building along 50th Street was a big leap in scale over the two-story homes across the street. It didn’t help that the renderings show a long, dull facade looming over the early 20th century houses. And because the site is steeply sloped, the base of the building would have turned into a high wall as it approached Springfield Avenue. Branch said she feared it would look like a failed public housing project.
Parking was also the elephant in the room. The two new market-rate apartments were built with only modest amounts of parking. That makes sense because this area has some of the best transit in Philadelphia. It also makes sense that the original Omni proposal would have just 55 spaces for 174 units. Fewer lower-income people own cars, and the site was chosen for its easy transit connections. Parking greatly increases construction costs, making it harder to build affordable housing. North Philadelphia’s Paseo Verde, one of Philadelphia’s best mixed-income developments, was similarly built with only a modest amount of parking.
But Greg Benjamin, the head of the 51st Democratic Ward, which is the lead community group for the project, saw things differently. Omni’s parking recommendation was “the last straw,” he said, and he made that the single most important issue. He didn’t just want Omni to provide a few more spaces for its tenants; he also wanted enough additional spaces to “accommodate neighbors.”
Omni’s developers (who did not respond to my e-mails, texts or phone calls) should have had their architects (who are not identified in the presentations) go back to the drawing board to deal with the clunky massing along 50th Street. They could have improved the design by setting back some of the upper floors and including more entry points on 50th Street. Will Tung, who lives around the corner on Springfield Avenue and is a member of the pro-development group 5th Square, argues that Omni should also have incorporated a staircase at 50th and Springfield, so tenants would be able to walk to the trolley more easily.
Instead, Omni simply dumbed down its design to appease the loudest voices. While Omni might have added a few more parking spaces as a compromise, a hundred is excessive. New market-rate apartments rarely offer one-for-one parking.
What’s more, the burden of paying for that parking could compromise Omni’s ability to qualify for the federal tax credits, which it needs to help finance the project. But to get them, Omni has to compete against other affordable housing proposals, said Kathy Dowdell, an architect and member of Cedar Park Neighbors, which supports, with caveats, Omni’s original proposal.
“The federal government wants to subsidize housing, not parking,” she explained.
Even this parking-heavy proposal could be much improved with a few clicks. Flip the site layout by putting the two buildings along the street and hiding the parking in the back, against SEPTA’s rail line. At least then, neighbors wouldn’t have to look at a big asphalt lot.
In its current form, Omni’s proposal is likely to get a harsh reception in the next few weeks from the Planning Commission and the Civic Design board. But they’re merely advisory. It’s the Zoning Board that has the real power. And since it often rubber stamps projects that have the backing of neighborhood groups, Omni could still get its variance.
Only Gauthier, using councilmanic prerogative for good, can prevent this proposal from being approved in its current form. She’s right to advocate for affordable housing to prepare Cedar Park for the coming gentrification. But she also needs to fight for designs that allow this neighborhood to remain a pleasant and walkable place to live.