What’s Happening at 5301 Germantown Avenue?

5301 Germantown Ave

5301 Germantown Avenue

A group of Germantown residents, business owners, and property owners have submitted a letter of inquiry to L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams calling for a review of the commercial and residential development at 5301 Germantown Avenue.

In the letter, of which I am a co-signer, the group questions the process through which zoning was obtained and whether or not the project is consistent with the goals of developing mixed-use commercial districts.

At six stories (that’s soaring in Germantown), the building sits on a largely historic stretch of Germantown Avenue below Chelten Avenue and is perhaps the biggest non-commercial redevelopment in years. Yet significant aspects of the project remain shrouded in secrecy.

As advertised on a sign posted to the building facade, 5301 Germantown Avenue is said to feature a 1,600 sq ft cafe or restaurant space on the ground floor and 11 market rate apartments (one and two-bedroom units). The primary use of the building however is reputed to be a 100-bed residential shelter, managed by an unnamed non-profit. The developer, Ken Weinstein of Philly Office Retail, has stated publicly at several community meetings that he cannot legally disclose the name of the non-profit tenant or the nature of the additional residential use. This has baffled residents living nearby, generating unnecessary confusion about the development. The distrust and frustration could no doubt have been mitigated by a more transparent development process.

Interestingly, many local news publications have covered the renovation at 5301 and the community’s response, including WHYY’s NewsWorks (most recently here, here, and here), The Philadelphia Tribune, and The Independent Voice. None of the stories from the press however explore the legality of the unnamed use, or how exactly the developer secured the required zoning, bypassing public disclosures, the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and the Registered Community Organization review process.

For full disclosure, the text of the aforementioned email and enclosures sent to Commissioner Williams and copied to a list of public leaders and officials, follows below in it’s entirety.

View as downloadable PDF document.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Carlton Williams, Commissioner
Department of Licenses and Inspections
Municipal Services Building – 11th Floor
1401 John F. Kennedy Boulevard
Philadelphia, PA 19102

Re: Commercial/Residential Development at 5301 Germantown Avenue (19144)

We, the undersigned residents, business owners, and property owners of Germantown, primarily and specifically of the Lower Southwest, Penn-Knox Neighbors Association, and the Baynton Hill Neighbors Association, respectfully submit this letter regarding the commercial property located at 5301 Germantown Avenue. The community has recently become aware of the forthcoming use of the building situated on this property as an emergency residential shelter. The community questions the validity both of the permitting and zoning as “Safety Services,” as well as the process through which zoning was obtained. This letter is submitted with the request that the Department of Licenses and Inspections review whether or not a shelter is a use “by right” under CMX 2.5, and if not, require that the property owner go through the proper procedure for acquiring proper zoning through the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Developer Ken Weinstein of Philly Office Retail, owner of the property at 5301 Germantown Avenue, is currently renovating the prominent, 6-story building standing at the corner of Germantown Avenue and Penn Street. This is within the historic commercial corridor in Germantown. The property is also within eyesight of 100s of residential housing, Germantown Friends School, Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia, and John Wister Elementary School.

The building is zoned CMX 2.5, a new zoning designation designed to promote pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use commercial and residential neighborhoods. The property, according to signage on the building and public conversations with Mr. Weinstein will feature a 1,600 sq. ft. cafe/restaurant space on the ground floor and eleven market rate apartments (one and two-bedroom units), available to the general public. It is believed by the community that the primary use of the building however will be an unadvertised 100-bed shelter, managed by an unnamed nonprofit. According to Mr. Weinstein, he is legally obligated to withhold any information related to this additional building use and the tenant. Mr. Weinstein stated this publicly in at least three separate community meetings held May 14 with the Baynton Hill Neighbors Association, June 3 at a meeting convened by Mr. Weinstein about a separate development, and most recently, the Penn-Knox Neighbors Association’s July 14, 2014 meeting.

The developer did not convene any community meetings specifically about 5301 Germantown Avenue as part of the Planning Commission’s Registered Community Organization (RCO) process, as he states he was not obligated to do so. Per Mr. Weinstein, he can develop the project by right, meaning that the renovations can be constructed without going before the ZBA to request a variance for new use. Sloan Folks, the NAC Program Coordinator at G’Town Restoration, the coordinating RCO, confirmed to neighbors that G’Town Restoration was not notified with specifics about the project, as such.

The main discrepancy between the community and the developer is over the definition of “Safety Services,” which is the building use listed on L&I’s registration permits and permissible by right.

We the undersigned community members, respectfully ask Licenses and Inspections to review all official materials concerning 5301 Germantown Avenue and the enclosed materials included on pages 3 thru 8 of this letter; provide an interpretation of zoning code CMX 2.5 by clarifying what uses were intended under the new code to fall under “Safety Services;” define “life protection;” and confirm whether or not a residential shelter is consistent with the goals of mixed-use commercial zones. If not, and 5301 Germantown Ave is found out of compliance with current zoning, require that the developer seek a proper variance.

Furthermore, a copy of this letter, along with a request to rephrase the definition of “Safety Services” within the zoning code to specifically NOT include emergency shelters without a variance, will be sent to our elected officials.

In closing, we thank you in advance for your time and attention to this matter and look forward to hearing from you. If any additional information is required or requested from the undersigned, please contact: Aine Doley at aine.doley@gmail.com or 215-805-8091.

Best regards,

Tracy McNeil
Owner, Sandalwood Yoga at 5310 Germantown Avenue

Ingrid Shepard
Founder, One Less Foundation at 5275 Germantown Avenue

Amanda Staples and Matt McFarland
Residents of the 100 Unit Block of E Coulter Street; Co-founders, Germantown Kitchen Garden at 215 E Penn Street

Emaleigh Doley
Co-Organizer, The W Rockland Street Project; Resident of the 100 Unit Block of W Rockland Street

Baynton Hill Neighbors Association Members, alongside Ross Hennesy
President, Baynton Hill Neighbors Association

Penn-Knox Neighbors Association Members, alongside Julie Baranauskas
President, Penn-Knox Neighbors Association 

Aine Doley
G’Town Restoration NAS Neighborhood Advisory Subcommittee Member; Block Captain and Resident of the 100 Unit Block of W Rockland Street

Jay and Jenna Jutkofsky
Residents of the 200 Block of E Penn Street

Enclosures: Existing permits for 5301 Germantown Avenue, available to the public; definitions of “Safety Services” and “Group Living” from the Philadelphia Zoning Code; background information.

CC: Councilwoman Cindy Bass, 8th District
Job Itzkowitz, Deputy Chief of Staff, Office of Cindy Bass, 8th District
Gary J. Jastrzab, Executive Director, Philadelphia City Planning Commission
Matt Wysong, Northwest Philadelphia Planner, Philadelphia City Planning Commission
Alan Urek, Deputy Director, Philadelphia City Planning Commission
State Representative Stephen Kinsey
State Representative Rosita Youngblood
Ray Gaines, L&I, Construction Plans Review Specialist
Alan Greenberger, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development
Luke Butler, Chief of Staff to the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development

Enclosed Materials

1. Existing Permits

Below is the use permit for 5301 Germantown Avenue, which can be found on L&I’s website at http://www.phila.gov/li/Pages/default.aspx:

USE-USE CHANGE FOR PARTOF BLDG
FOR A SIT-DOWN RESTAURANT ON 1ST FLOOR FRONT; MULTI-FAMILY HOUSEHOLD LIVING (7 UNITS) ON 2ND FLOOR; MULTI-FAMILY HOUSEHOLD LIVING (4 UNITS) ON 3RD FLOOR FRONT (TOTAL 11 UNITS) IN THE SAME BUILDING WITH EXISTING SAFETY SERVICES @ REAR PORTIONS OF 1ST & 3RD FLOORS & THROUGHOUT ALL PORTIONS OF 4TH THRU 6TH FLOORS AS PREVIOUSLY APPROVED. NO SIGN ON THIS APPLICATION.

This was changed from the original permit, issued in October 2013:

USE-USE CHANGE FOR PARTOF BLDG 
SAFETY SERVICES – FIRST FLOOR REAR AND FLOORS TWO THRU SIX IN THE SAME BUILDING WITH EXISTING SALE AND STORAGE OF FURNITURE AND HOUSEHOOLD GOODS IN THE FIRST FLOOR FRONT.

The graphic below, and attached permits, were downloaded from http://www.phila.gov/zoningarchive.

2013.10.15_safety_services_diagram
The zoning and use registration permit below, dated October 1, 2013 and submitted by lawyer Peter F. Kelsen, states the proposed use for floors “1st – rear – 6” as “safety services – shelter.” This was approved by L&I.
2013.10.01_zoning_use
Use permit, dated October 16, 2013.
2013.10.16_use_permit
2. Safety Services and Group Living

The main discrepancy between the community and the developer is over the definition of “Safety Services.” The zoning code defines safety services as:

“Establishments that provide fire, police or life protection, together with the incidental storage and maintenance of necessary vehicles.”

A reasonable person would understand this to be narrowly defined as just that, fire stations and police stations. It is unclear what is meant by “life protection,” (perhaps private security?) but it is assumed that it would fall in line with similar services. Shelters, however, fall under a different definition. Shelters are considered “group living,” which is prohibited in CMX 2.5 and not permitted by right.

Safety services of police and fire are allowed without restriction in all Commercial districts because their successful functioning depends on physical proximity to the area for which they are providing service. You cannot make the same case for a shelter, even if the shelter is providing emergency housing or long-term shelter, hence their separate designation.

In the code, Group Living is defined as:

“Residential occupancy of a building or any portion thereof that is not categorized as a household living use (see § 14-601(2)(a)) and that typically provides communal kitchen/dining facilities. Examples of group living uses include, but are not limited to, fraternities, sororities, group homes, and temporary overnight shelters.”

To be approved for Group Living in a building with CMX 2.5 zoning classification, the developer must file for a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment and follow the procedures set forth by the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Licensing and Inspections and the rules and regulations outlined in the Philadelphia Zoning Code, which Mr. Weinstein and PhillyOfficeRetail.com has not done.

3. Background on community discussion

The full proposed use of the building became widely public after resident Amanda Staples posted this news to a Facebook discussion group on May 15, 2014:

Amanda Staples: “Ken Weinstein was good enough to come to the Baynton Hill Neighbors meeting last night to discuss a few of his projects. He said the building at Penn and Germantown would be apartments with a cafe on the bottom, but when pressed about a rumor, it ultimately came out that there will also be some sort of residential non-profit, which Mr. Weinstein absolutely refused to discuss. This was disappointing to say the least, mostly because he was being 100% secretive about it until asked directly by someone who had heard about it, at which point he said he could not tell us what it would be. I think we all expected more from him, because he does have such a good reputation. Many people in the neighborhood here (Baynton Hill Neighbors particularly) feel that we have plenty of residential non-profits, but alas, the zoning permits this mysterious activity so I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.”

In response to the news posted, Ken Weinstein publically posted this reply to the online discussion group:

Ken Weinstein: “Upon completion, it will be used as a community cafe, 1 and 2 bedroom market rate apartments and by a nonprofit group for a residential use that I cannot legally disclose. This use will not include drug and alcohol counseling, nor services to exoffenders, mentally ill patients or juvenile delinquents. It will be run by a very reputable organization with a long track record of operating similar facilities. I can try to answer any questions you may have but there is not much more I can say about this project.”

Included below are links to Living in Germantown: All Together, a Germantown Facebook discussion group with over 500 members where these early discussions took place (there has been much continued debate):

https://www.facebook.com/groups/LivinginGermantown/permalink/702636849803973/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/LivinginGermantown/permalink/704631032937888/

[end of letter sent Monday, July 28, 2014]

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9 comments

  • Thoughtful suggestions . I learned a lot from the information – Does anyone know where my company might get ahold of a fillable Verification of Pregnancy & Gestational Age document to fill out ?

    • Hi Lelah, my assistant filled out a fillable Verification of Pregnancy & Gestational Age form version with this link https://goo.gl/oMKt8f.

  • Pingback: New Parking Lot Coming to Germantown Avenue Commercial Corridor | The W Rockland St Project

  • While the financing of moderate to major renovations in Germantown, guaranteed rents, and long term tenants, may seem like a tangent, I think it is relevant to this discussion. Developers in Germantown argue that they cannot get private funding for big projects, and they also seem unwilling to invest significant dollars of their own. As a result, we keep getting further saturated with projects that have rent guarantors (Medicare, Medicaid, other government reimbursements). And, in the case of the aforementioned shelter, there is a huge (city council approved) $2.5 million grant from the city’s Office of Supportive Housing. My guess is much of this money went into the renovations. Retrofitting an old storage building for this very specific purpose, clearly represents a significant commitment on the part of both parties. Leaving the community, who should have been the third major stakeholder, out of such a significant, expensive, and potentially long-term decision is unconscionable.

    Considering the bigger and more long range picture, it seems essential that Germantown developers wean themselves off the government dole so that Germantown can become home to a greater diversity of businesses and organizations. As residents, we do not relish being asked time and again to vote against worthy causes such as adult day centers, group homes for the mentally challenged, low security correctional facilities, shelters for abused women, and so on. These are essential programs; Germantown just has far too many! Coupled with the massive influx of subsidized HCVP rental housing (also with guaranteed and, might I add, highly inflated rents), our neighborhood has reached a tipping point. The critical question is whether or not we can slow this momentum or will it go over the cliff.

    Developers, landlords, and property owners who are truly concerned about a better Germantown (and not just their own pocketbook), need to be real partners with the community in creating a shared vision for the neighborhood’s future – a vision that is in everyone’s best interest. At the very least, this means honest interactions with full disclosure at all times. It also means a willingness to dramatically shift the direction away from the type of group day and residential facilities and treatment centers filling up the neighborhood. This is even more urgent on commercial corridors like Germantown Avenue which is already so saturated. How can this historic corridor possibly be revived if the public is unable to utilize half the buildings? We already have Cunningham’s Piano Factory exploring a move because of the impact of the methadone clinic. Asher’s Candies was the first to go. Who will be next?

    It is not a question of being for or against shelters for abused women or any other needed service. It is simply that Germantown needs to be closed to these types of programs until a better, more healthy balance is achieved. Yet, when we are not properly informed of zoning matters, are essentially deceived and kept in the dark, we are unable to close that door. And that is an egregious violation of our rights as citizens.

  • There are several issues which must be addressed openly before a neighborhood can support or even tolerate a 100 bed shelter. We must have a full, clear and documented discussion regarding various topics. Some of the topics that I would like systematically discussed and documented are as follows:

    -Why has L&I not challenged the proposed use as a direct violation of their own codes and regulations?
    -What other locations have been considered?
    -What criteria where used to determine this location as the best for all stakeholder?
    -Who are ALL the stakeholders and what is the effect on each?
    -What are the social, economic, safety and environmental costs of maintaining a 100 bed shelter?
    -Which organization has been chosen to run this 100 bed facility?
    -Is the chosen organization a for-profit or not-for-profit organization? How does the organization get its’ funding?
    -What criteria where used to determine that this organization is the best to manage this type of facility?
    -Which other shelters does this organization manage?
    -How will citizens be referred to or brought to this shelter? Will it be by government intervention? Private social services? Hospitals? Self admission?
    -For how long will citizens reside in this facility?
    -How will citizens be discharged from the shelter and relocated to more permanent housing? Will it be by government intervention? Private social services? Hospitals?
    -What will the day-to-day routine of the shelter residents?
    -Will there be full-time structured environments for shelter residents to make sure they are not hanging in the neighborhood?
    -Who will be visiting the residents of the shelter?
    -What is the process to have the shelter address negative impact issues that may arise during its’ operation?

    I am sure I have missed several points and many details on larger points. I urge the all stakeholders to speak up until L&I decides that the zoning codes belong to all citizens. We have a right to know what is happening in our neighborhood. It directly affects us!
    Thank you for listening to my concerns.
    Chris, Resident

  • I think that we as a community are striving for transparency. It’s important for the city and developers to realize that the community is strong and concerned about the balance of the planning around us. Placing a large shelter facility in an area that is commercially blighted and already full of social service outlets is something to question and hopefully discuss openly with all involved in the project and process on both sides. I feel that this sharing is totally within reason and thus support the above response and unification of neighborhood groups in the above letter to ask for that as residents of Germantown who care about what is happening around them.

  • Julie Baranauskas

    Penn Knox is an area barely 10 blocks square that has a methadone clinic, 5 halfway houses, 4 legal assisted living locations (and more that are under the radar), a teen addiction residential treatment program, 2 alcohol recovery residences, a major social service agency, elderly public housing and about 15 PHA houses. It has been decided for us, in secret, that a high rise location, which has never worked out well for stressed populations, in a high traffic area is just a perfect place for women & kids who need a secure place to live.

    There was no forewarning or other way to ask reasonable questions on the use of this location by those it will affect. This use will increase density, impact traffic and affect general safety so it is reasonable to ask why not locate in Chestnut Hill, an area with few social services? The Northeast? S. Philadelphia? Why in the one neighborhood that is overwhelmed with social services? Explain, please, how this location will benefit clients or existing residents? It is in a nascent business district, on The Colonial Germantown Historic District, a designated National Historic Landmark District. How will it fit in with the historic use designation?

    Secrecy is a bad quality for a government. Ignoring constituent concerns and requests does not lead to long bureaucratic careers, even in Philadelphia.

    Julie Baranauskas

    • Thank you, Julie, for your informative, rational, and intelligent comment. When the residential and day treatment programs as well as subsidized housing (often owned by unscrupulous, sometimes out-of-state landlords) get enumerated, the hard numbers are shocking. There needs to be a moratorium. Otherwise we will be trapped in a catch 22 – no other businesses or organizations will want to locate here. People will continue to spend their dollars outside of Germantown. Home ownership and values will decline and many residents will see Germantown as a short term stop on their way to a more viable and stable community.

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