What’s Happening at 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-805-8091.
Owner, Sandalwood Yoga at 5310 Germantown Avenue
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
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
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
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.
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.
Use permit, dated October 16, 2013.
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):
[end of letter sent Monday, July 28, 2014]