Mt Sinai Letter

DSW LogoFebruary 24, 2014
Sent via email to Michelle.Rand@phila.gov
Ms. Michelle Rand
Zoning Board of Adjustment
1401 John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Room 1140
Philadelphia, PA  19102

RE:     ZBA Application #505706

400 Reed Street

Dear Ms. Rand:

This letter is unusual in its length and analysis because we feel a great obligation to our neighbors and friends to include and explain all of the input we have received for this very significant project which could be the crown jewel of our community if it is done right.  As the ZBA will be able to see from the below, the project is not quite there yet.  The developer needs to start thinking about this as a legacy project.  We are also struggling with the community’s concerns that this developer will be unable financially to complete the project and there is grave concern about giving approval to a multi-unit use when it may not come about.  We urge the ZBA to restrict the multi use to single family residential market rate housing.

The above-referenced applicant presented the ZBA application to Dickinson Square West Civic Association (DSWCA) on two different occasions, December 12, 2013 as an introductory meeting to the community at large and again on January 29, 2014 for the formal ZBA application presentation to the DSWCA Zoning Committee, which also drew a large community turnout.  We are aware the developer presented twice to our neighboring civic, Pennsport Civic Association as they border the project on the east side of Fourth Street.  However, we are the RCO within whose borders the entire project lies.

While the application is entitled 400 Reed Street, the project encompasses an entire city block, Fourth Street to Fifth Street, Reed Street to Dickinson Street.  It is likely the largest project of its kind in the close neighborhoods of South Philadelphia because it is the last fully unaddressed square block in the midst of a vibrant neighborhood largely filled with single family rowhouses built in the mid 1800s thru 1920’s and a development more recently built in Jefferson Square.  The property now contains what was until 1997 Mt. Sinai Hospital.  The block has been vacant and secured, and cared for by the neighbors in conjunction with the sole caretaker, since that time.  The neighbors really care about what happens at that site.

The Zoning Committee provided public notice to surrounding neighbors for both meetings (enclosed).  There were large turnouts at both meetings which included neighbors from other civic associations.  The audience was interested, vocal and engaged in the process.   The attorney (Richard DeMarco) and architect for the project (Barton Partners), along with the representative of the developer Greenpointe Construction, (Gagan Lakhmna) presented plans to obtain numerous variances to allow them to build 38-39 market rate three bedroom townhouses with rear entry garages and 198 rental units in the existing Mt. Sinai Hospital buildings.  Those buildings are the original hospital building to contain 117 rental units and a wing built in 1987 to contain 81 rental units, totaling 198 rental units consisting of 66 studios, 32 one bedroom, 62 one bedroom plus den, 32 two bedroom and 6 two bedroom plus den.  The total living units number 237, total bedrooms 319.  The plan also shows a parking garage with cars on three levels and would be 22 feet high backing up to within three feet of the existing rowhouses on the 400 block of Dickinson Street.

ISSUES IDENTIFIED THAT NEGATIVELY IMPACT THE IMMEDIATE COMMUNITY AND RECOMMENDED SOLUTIONS:

*Reduce density of townhouses – there are 39 townhouses ringing the project and all need a variance on width to fit that many in.  The 14 townhouses planned for 4th and Reed Street hide the original architecture of the historic hospital and the entrance portico.  It does not complement the site.  Reduce the number of townhouses at Reed St and 4th St.

*More open space with landscaping is needed – If, for example, 14 of the townhouses were omitted, the open space on Reed and 4th Sts could be enlarged.  It would curb pollution and visually enhance the square with green space.  The frontage would be the current drive thru with portico, landscaping enlarged and updated.  That landscaping could connect with the commercial space on 4th Street complying with 21st century city planning.  Plans of projects within 10 blocks of this project have contemporary open/green public space, a desired concept for city living.  See pictures enclosed.

*Reduce density of rental units and restrict to single family residential – there are 198 rental units planned which is overly dense for the size of the building.  All of these require variances to multiunit living.  With the number of studios (66) it is unlikely they could ever eventually convert to condo ownership, making this a permanent rental building.  Reducing the number of studio apartments would allow for much more amenity space for the occupants – possibly include some office space or services with daytime use only; which could lead to jobs and/or services for the entire community.

*Design – The townhouses will have the sides and back of stucco and the design shown of the front façade included a mix of stucco, brickface and metal with extending bays.  The design is not complementary to the existing 150 year old rowhouses.  The proposed townhouses tower above the existing rooflines, the parapet is not set back, the bays bump out past the front line of the existing rowhouses and they are narrower than the others on the block.

*Parking/vehicles/traffic studyNo traffic study has been presented to show the impact on surrounding streets.  The developer has proposed a three level parking garage, which requires a variance and surface spaces.  The community expects and does not welcome the large amount of cars, trucks, deliveries, move ins, move outs that will be created by this project.  The parking garage, measuring 22 feet high, backs up to within 3 feet of the rear of the existing homes on Dickinson Street.  This is opposed.  It will cause health and safety issues.  Parking is already difficult, with all of these new units it will be worse.  If the density is reduced there is no need for a garage.

*Green/LEED/Environmental issues/utility location – none noted in plans.  We question why this is not required for a project of this size.  There is minimal greenery to compensate for the density proposed.  The developer should include Solar panels, green roofs, storm water management through plantings, underground utilities should be required, block paving to allow water penetration and so forth.

*Community Concerns:  Construction Completion Bonds, Water/Sewer, Building Quality  Many negative comments about this developer’s prior projects have been brought to us in the last few weeks.  We seek to ensure none of that happens here with a project of this size.  The community does not want to be inconvenienced more than necessary or endangered or live with a site where the developer walked away and would require bonds posted, guarantee of scheduling with a liaison and written agreements to reflect such.  All work that can be done within the compound must be rather than closing our streets.  This must be agreed upon and put in writing.

We want a written agreement to use a better version of the design and high quality materials proposed in the last drawings submitted to us.  There are still issues with the bays and the height of the parapet but we will discuss those and come to a written agreement.  The community suffered low water pressure when the hospital was active.  We want assurances that will not occur with the new use and we want certification that the intended uses will not negatively affect water/sewer lines for the community.

DETAILS UPON WHICH THE CONCERNS ARE BASED

General Description of Project

The current plan shows the townhouses at 3 stories tall to the cornice line (38 ft) with roof deck and pilot house extending 5 feet above that, to ring the perimeter of the present hospital campus and provide infill on Fifth Street and the north side of the 400 block of Dickinson Street.  The townhouses will be built in phases, 7-8 at a time.  The multifamily residential structure created by the re-use of the historic Mt. Sinai structure and the 1987 addition is at this time unfunded and will not be built immediately.  The developer could not tell the community when that might happen, but did admit he needed historic tax credits to do it.  There is also a three story parking garage, one commercial space (2500 sq ft) on Fourth Street where the old emergency entrance was, plus surface parking, bicycle spots, 2 CarShare spots and 5 handicap spots.

Density

Calculating the number of bedrooms, with the assumption of 1 person per bedroom, the rental units and townhouses would add 319 people to the square block adding considerably to the current number, approximately 100 residents for Reed, Dickinson, 4th St and to the nearby community of homes.  The figure does not account for 2 persons in 1 bedroom nor 3 in a 2 bedroom unit.  Pricing of rental units was not available.  A typical block is not nearly the

density figure of about 500 persons.  The community is also concerned about what would happen to the multi-use designation if the developer is financially unable to complete the project.

Community Design Concerns

The townhouses will have the sides and back of stucco and the design shown of the front façade included a mix of stucco, brickface and metal with extending bays.  There are small basements. The community DID NOT like the design presented at the first meeting and the architect redesigned the townhouse fronts.  The community still is unhappy with the designs as they wanted something that would blend better with the existing homes.

Specific Design Concerns from the 400 Block of Dickinson Street

The north side of the 400 block of Dickinson is not satisfied with the latest proposed design circulated recently as it is detrimental to their street of 1850’s rowhomes.  The newest design still has bays, which do not fit the federal style of the existing community,.  The bays project 2 to 3 feet beyond the face of the existing homes.  This is a safety issue.  Neighbors will not be able to see from their second or third floors any activity toward the 5th Street side of their block.  These neighbors are active and engaged and report incidents they observe.  If the developer insists on bays, then the bays should not project beyond the face of the existing rowhouses.  The new townhouses also tower above the existing rowhomes by 8-10 feet because the parapet is not set back as required.  A separate letter previously sent to the City by a Dickinson Street neighbor is attached, with photographs.  That letter is very specific about that blocks’ concerns about this project.  They are the homes immediately affected by this project and the Zoning Committee believes their concerns are valid and should be addressed by the ZBA.  We expect many of them to attend the zoning hearing if weather permits.

Specific Concerns of the 400 Block of Dickinson Street About the Proposed Parking Garage

The developer’s newest plan includes a three level parking garage, 22 feet high with 145 spaces, which backs up to the existing rowhouses on the north side of the 400 block of Dickinson Street, positioned within two feet of their back fences.  These neighbors WILL NOT accept this structure with no set back.  The garage also eliminated the open space in the plan, creating issues with storm water runoff, there are no plans for permeable block or landscaping to relieve the concrete which will also negatively impact the health and welfare of the homeowners on the north side of Dickinson Street, who are actively opposed to the location and height of the proposed parking garage.

Included in the letter attached hereto signed by those neighbors are concerns about health, safety, light, air and loss of enjoyment of their own back yards from light pollution, car exhaust and dirt and trash.  The Zoning Committee believes these are valid concerns and should be addressed by the ZBA.

Length of Construction Period

The construction period is anticipated to be 36 months, with the first townhouses starting 60-90 days from the date the zoning permits are received.  As stated above, the developer states he has financing secured for the townhouses but not for the multifamily structures.  They need historic tax credits to make that work and they do not yet have those.  There is also some concern by the developer about flooding the market with all 38-39 townhouses so they will likely be built in phases.  The planned selling price for the townhouses is $400-450K

Ingress, Egress and Support Areas Not Clarified

It is unclear from the new plan where the entrance and exit to the compound will be, where service vehicles will go, where the dumpsters are, where deliveries will be made, where access is for move ins/move outs, access to rentals’ parking for all apartments and garages for the 38-39 townhouses.

Neighbors Do Not Like the Townhouse Designs and the Overall Look of the Project is Not Impressive

Most of the audience at two meetings were not impressed with the renderings of the look of the proposal, but were VERY disappointed with the designs and density of projected populace, several hundred people more than any other square block.  There was one objection to roof decks because of the height of the townhouses, approximately 8 feet higher than existing rowhouses.  The commercial space is supposed to be offered to a restaurant.  There is no parking for the commercial space.

Asbestos Remediation Unplanned, HVAC Units Not Sited Yet, Require Underground Utilities

There is asbestos in the old hospital building, which must be remediated and no plan has been presented for that, which concerns the immediate neighbors.  Some of the buildings that are to be demolished contain the mechanicals for the existing hospital.  The neighbors are concerned that 198 HVAC units will be put on the roof of the hospital building creating noise pollution and health issues.  We have seen no drawings or proposals for mechanicals.  All utilities should be required to be underground or we will have wire pollution at the site.

Building Schedule, Management of Property and Developer’s Financial Challenges

The developer is going to own and manage the building, although he apparently has no management experience.  A management company may be hired.  No amenities have been decided on for the rental units. The townhouses are not going to be union labor, rather he will

use small subcontractors, build a few, sell them, then build some more.  The community is very concerned that the developer cannot financially support this project and the community will be left with a mess of a partly finished project.

It appeared from a number of comments made by the developer that financing indeed is an issue, that there was no certain financing for anything other than A FEW townhouses and the purchase of the property.  A concern would be that the townhouses would be built around a decaying structure that the developer walks away from because he couldn’t afford to implement his plan.  For example, the selection of materials for the proposed townhouses also reflects the focus on financing/cost as they are not the kind and quality that match or complement the existing neighborhood, or the historic Mt. Sinai building for which they hope to receive historic certification.  Placing ten townhouses jarringly out of sync as to design contiguous to the historic Mt. Sinai entrance on 5th Street may make it more difficult to obtain historic certification and thus the desired historic tax credits.

Parking

Parking is a huge issue.  That is apparently why the three level parking garage was added to the plan.  However that only creates extreme issues with the existing homeowners with the garage literally in their backyard, as the attached letter demonstrates.  If the density was reduced (which is also a concern of the entire neighborhood) then either the parking garage would not be needed or it could be half the size and located well away from the back of the rowhouses at the required 9 feet (or more), leaving that area open for green space.  The community, particularly because of the negative parking factor and subsequent pollution/health risks, does not favor this greatly increased density of population.  It is unfair to the homeowners on Dickinson Street to bear the entire burden of the negative effects of the parking garage to relieve the entire community of parking concerns.

No Traffic Studies

We were presented with no traffic studies.  Fourth Street is one way south, Fifth Street is one way north, Reed Street is one way west and Dickinson is one way East. All surrounding streets will be impacted by the additional mass volume of 198 rental units and 39 homes totaling 319 bedrooms.

Lighting and Security

It was stated that there will be lighting in the interior of the site.  It is unknown if there will be a gate on the service street.  There was no definite response to a question about security cameras at the compound, especially in the tiny space between the three story parking garage and the backyards of Dickinson Street.  The neighbors would like underground utilities at the compound, including to the surrounding townhouses.

Developer’s View of the Project, His Experience and Financial Stability

The architect for the developer described the project as “urban repair” as if it was not a project seamless as a well thought out whole, but rather something to fill that space.  The developer several times stated this was “the best he could come up with” and that financing limited him. He acknowledged that he had done a number of smaller projects, but not one of this size.  That inexperience in this challenging project could be a negative added to financing concerns.  This is not a project that will allow corners to be cut, it is big and it will be expensive and time consuming, undoubtedly why it has taken a long time for the market to be right to even attempt it.  And it may still be too soon from the finance market standpoint.  The neighbors are aware of, and questioned the developer about, the number of lawsuits he has been involved in relating to financing and other projects, the most recent of which was in 2013.  Projects nearby that the developer told us about have been investigated and criticism of the developer was expressed.  Our neighborhood is worried that there is no phasing in place to ensure the completion of the project, nor is there a designated project manager or a community contact with the neighborhood.

Community Impression of Development Proposal

Overall the community is not antidevelopment.  They are not opposed to development, including residential development, at this site, however this particular proposal has problems.  The neighborhood wants “something special” there and if this developer’s financing only allows a lower grade development with numerous variances requested to build more inexpensively and increase profits, then this is something to be seriously considered as it will impact the neighborhood for years.  It is not the case that neighbors just want something there, they can wait for the right thing.  There was no CDR review required, as we understand, so we had no City office to assist us.  We are all volunteers with no engineering or architectural training.  This is a centerpiece of our neighborhood and should be part of the City’s planning process for South Philadelphia as an overall plan, instead we feel there has been little to no City involvement and we have been left to fend for ourselves.  We do note that a vote at the last meeting by a show of hands on yea or nay, the yeas outnumbered the nays by 30 to 8.  A number of that majority live in Pennsport, not Dickinson Square West.  There was a significant group of “maybes” that were not counted in that balloting.

ZONING COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS TO ZBA

The Zoning Committee addresses the Amended Refusal with specific refusals as numbered on the Amended Refusal:

1.  Refusal for multiple uses

The Zoning Committee recommends that the ZBA refuse this use unless the developer reduces the number of rental units in the re-used hospital buildings and agrees that it will be restricted for single family residential market rate housing.  Specifically there are 66 studio apartments planned as part of the total of 198 rental units.  This makes the project too dense.  There does not appear to be a demand for studio apartment living in this area.  Reducing the number of units will also reduce the need for the three level 22 foot parking garage negatively impacting the north side of Dickinson Street.  The residents of that street strongly oppose the three level garage as it is now set to be located three feet behind their homes.  They oppose it because it is a health and safety hazard, diminishes light and air and omits open space required by law ie a 9 foot setback. 

2.  Refusal for reduced interior landscaping (required 10% proposed 6%)

The Zoning Committee believes that with the addition of the three level parking garage, that this percentage is even less.  The Zoning Committee recommends that the ZBA refuse this reduction and insist on more open space and greenery.

3.  Refusal for number of curb cuts (allowed 1 proposed 5)

The Zoning Committee understands that currently there are 5 curb cuts being requested.  Every curb cut eliminates two street parking spaces.  We understand that these are needed for ingress and egress, but recommend disallowing “Loading Zones” on the surrounding streets and forcing any loading or unloading to be interior to the project, which will soften the impact of the loss of street parking and not eliminate even more parking by allowing Loading Zones.

4.  Refusal for off street parking (not allowed in this district)

The Zoning Committee recommends reducing the size of the parking garage to a maximum of two levels (including ground level), enforcing the nine foot setback requirement and have a written requirement of a living green screen to be maintained by the development in perpetuity to relieve the impact on the homeowners on the north side of Dickinson Street.

5.  Refusal for proposed non-accessory parking spaces (not allowed in this district)

The developer has not explained this request.  Therefore we cannot support it.

6.  Refusal for reduced buildable lot size for townhouses:

          14 lots proposed to be 800 SF, 1414 SF required

          10 lots proposed to be 750 SF, 1414 SF required

            6 lots proposed to be 775 SF, 1414 SF required

            6 lots proposed to be 787 SF, 1414 SF required

            1 lot proposed to be 650 SF, 1414 SF required

            1 lot proposed to be 627 SF, 1414 SF required

The Zoning Committee’s chief objection is to townhouses smaller in width than 15 ½ feet, if any are still planned at the site.  Homes in this area measure 16 feet wide.  The Zoning Committee objects to the bays on the proposed houses, they do not complement the existing housing, and object to any house that projects beyond the front of any existing house, including bay projections, this is a health and safety issue.

7.  Refusal for rear depth (Required nine feet, proposed three feet six inches)

The Zoning Committee, as set forth above, is concerned about density and open space, air and light and safety with all these proposed buildings crammed into the block.  Specifically the Committee opposes the parking garage being any closer to the easement on the north side of Dickinson than nine feet.  The Committee recommends refusal of this request and enforcing the set back requirement.

8.  Refusal for open space (required 30% of lot, proposed 20% for 17 lots, 13% for 20 lots. 8% for one lot)

The Zoning Committee recommends enforcing the open space requirement and denying this request.

9.  Refusal for lot width (required 16 feet, proposed for one lot at 13 feet)

The Zoning Committee does not recommend the approval of a 13 foot buildable lot, this is the same lot (35) that only has 8% open space referenced in number 8.

10.  Refusal for lot width (required 16 feet, proposed for 23 lots 15 to 15.9 feet)

The Zoning Committee recommends that all lot widths be no less than 15 ½ feet to fit the character of the neighborhood of 16 foot wide lots.

Townhouse Height

The Zoning Committee understands that in the new plan accompanying the Amended Refusal, the proposed townhouses allegedly conform to the height requirement of 38 feet, however, drawings received show a three foot parapet panel set at the front of the roofline above the 38 foot height limit, generally above the cornice level of existing homes (35 feet) on the same block.  The Committee objects to the parapet panel being at the front of the roof because it makes the townhouses 6 feet taller than the existing homes.  That parapet panel setback should be enforced so as not to be visible from the street, at a minimum on Dickinson Street next to the historic homes. 

We appreciate the opportunity to provide comment on this application.  Please do not hesitate to contact me with any further questions.

Sincerely,

 

Zoning Committee

Dickinson Square West Civic Association

zoning@dickinsonsquarewest.org

enclosures

cc:           Marie Beren, Councilman Squilla’s office (via email); Jeannette Brugger, PCPC (via email), applicant

www.dickinsonsquarewest.orginfo@dickinsonsquarewest.org

Serving the Neighborhood from 4th to 6th Streets, Washington to Mifflin

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