Caution! As you head east on Pine Street through Center City toward the Independent Republic of Society Hill, be aware that you are crossing into foreign territory. There are no warning signs, no guard posts, and, so far, no barbed wire at the border. But if you pay attention, you’ll notice that street conditions change abruptly east of Eighth Street, where the neighborhood of fine, colonial-era homes officially begins.
In the Republic of Society Hill, the crosstown bike lanes have no flex posts.
Those white plastic posts, which are screwed into the asphalt at the corner of each block, were one of the signature safety innovations introduced earlier this year by the Philadelphia’s Streets Department after it finished reconstructing Pine and Spruce Streets. By most accounts, the posts, sometimes called delineators, are a success. Because they form a highly visible, physical barrier between the bike and car lanes at the most dangerous point in the intersection, they serve as a passive referee, forcing motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians to slow down and make turns with care.
But the Republic of Society Hill has its own views on the matter.
Last year, the civic association threatened to go nuclear in City Council and block a bill authorizing a suite of related street improvements. Maybe the neighborhood thought the white plastic posts were too tacky for its tree-lined brick sidewalks. Maybe the opposition was part of a larger backlash against bicyclists. Whatever the motivation, the Streets Department felt it had to offer a compromise: It agreed to let Society Hill opt out of the safety feature to keep the bill from being defeated.
This isn’t the first time that the neighborhood has decided that the laws of Philadelphia should not apply there. Everywhere else in Philadelphia, developers get to build slightly taller buildings if they include a green roof or rent space to a store selling fresh vegetables. Not in Society Hill. That’s thanks to the local Council representative, Mark Squilla, who passed a law in 2017 exempting Society Hill from such height bonuses.
Now the Republic of Society Hill wants to opt out again. Over the last three weeks, Squilla has introduced two bills that would tweak the city zoning code to make it harder to build affordable apartments in Society Hill. The bills also would increase parking requirements for new construction in the neighborhood and severely limit the height of buildings on Walnut Street. A separate measure would exempt Society Hill — the city’s most historic neighborhood — from having to comply with the Kenney administration’s new incentives to encourage developers to choose preservation over demolition. (Ironically, it was Squilla who introduced the bill creating those incentives.)
Speaking at Tuesday’s meeting of the Planning Commission, Anne Fadullon, who runs the city’s Department of Planning and Development, let loose on Society Hill for insisting on special treatment. These bills are “clearly exclusionary zoning,” she said, and complained that they will increase the neighborhood’s car count just as the Kenney administration says it wants to get more serious about fighting climate change.
Although City Council’s old-school practice of councilmanic prerogative pretty much guarantees that any bill Squilla proposes specifically for his district will become law, it doesn’t have to be that way. None of these measures is a done deal. The vote to lower height limits on Walnut Street, between Second and Fourth, won’t be held until Dec. 12. The bill that would effectively limit affordable apartments and increase parking requirements won’t have a hearing at the Rules Committee until Dec. 4.
If progressive members of Council believe all neighborhoods should offer housing options for people of different income levels, they should resist the prerogative and vote against these bills. That’s what the Planning Commission did this week. Unfortunately, the commission is merely advisory. The burden of doing the right thing rests with Council.
Despite a well-documented record of having things done their way, members of the Society Hill Civic Association take umbrage when you use the word exclusionary in their presence. None of the association’s officers would speak with me on the record, so I’m going to have to paraphrase their position: Basically, they assert that the impact of these bills on housing construction will be “insignificant.” They argue that the changes are merely “corrective” to smooth out incongruities in the neighborhood’s zoning map.
At Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, the association president, Larry Spector, was forced to acknowledge the growing resentment against the Republic of Society Hill.
“We don’t think we’re special. Just different,” he assured the group. But that still raises the question: Why does the Independent Republic demand special treatment?
In some ways, Society Hill isn’t that different from a slew of neighborhoods that find themselves suddenly on the front lines of the city’s construction boom. The Society Hill Civic Association is pushing for the zoning bills to ensure that the big colonial houses in the heart of the neighborhood remain houses and aren’t carved up into apartments or replaced with new mid-rises. By enshrining single-family zoning, the bills ensure that the Society Hill’s homes remain owner-occupied.
Interestingly, the commission gave the thumbs-up Tuesday to similar single-family zoning in several low-income neighborhoods in West Philadelphia. Those changes were approved in the name of fighting gentrification. By banning apartments, the commission hopes to keep out speculative developers and stabilize home prices in places like Cedar Park and Kingsessing. It’s not clear that this strategy will work, but plenty of other Philadelphia neighborhoods are also clamoring for the same single-family treatment.
So, fair enough. If Society Hill wants to maintain owner-occupied homes on its lovely, tree-lined streets, it should allow apartment construction in the more bustling parts of the neighborhood where large multifamily buildings already exist. That would be Walnut Street.
Walnut Street is where the Republic of Society Hill blends into Center City’s business district. Four bus routes ply the street. Yet, one of the bills now under consideration would limit the height of new buildings to just 65 feet, or six stories. By targeting the area between Second and Fourth, the Society Hill Civic Association is clearly trying to stop the redevelopment of the Ritz Five movie theater and Positano Coast restaurant building. For the record, the Penn Mutual tower, which overlooks Independence Hall Park, is 375 feet.
If the zoning changes are adopted, it would also make it harder to redevelop the sprawling parking lot next to the Wells Fargo Bank, a historic building at Second and Pine. They could also doom the reuse of two recently closed churches, the octagonal Holy Trinity at Sixth and Spruce and St. Andrew Ukrainian Catholic on Pine.
But the Republic of Society Hill isn’t as powerful as it looks. Some residents are beginning to turn against its more extreme positions. After some bike commuters discovered that the neighborhood wouldn’t be getting flex posts, they formed a group to reverse the decision.
“When I’m biking east of Eighth Street on Pine and Spruce, I don’t feel comfortable,” Albert Meinster, who has lived in Society Hill for most of his 76 years, told me. What next, he wonders. “Would they object to a stop sign or a traffic light?”
In the Independent Republic of Society Hill, anything is possible.