New Parking Lot Coming to Germantown Avenue Commercial Corridor
The 5300 block of Germantown Avenue will soon be home to a new 19-space surface parking lot at the corner of W Penn Street, joining two existing lots that front the commercial corridor within a single block. The grassy property is owned by developer Ken Weinstein, who is also renovating the six story building across the street at 5301 Germantown Avenue.
There is much possibility in Philadelphia’s vacant land, so the idea of yet another private lot is nothing short of a buzzkill to this stretch of the corridor, which is showing a glint of possibility marked by new businesses, new construction projects and renovations.
While a parking lot may not sound very exciting, Weinstein’s development in its entirety remains one of the most significant along the corridor in years. It has however proved difficult to get much information about.
In the summer, a group of concerned Germantown residents (myself included) and business owners frustrated by a lack of transparency reached out to the Department of Licenses and Inspections and various other agencies of the city with questions about the development process and potential impact on the neighborhood.
The primary concern is what appears to be the subversion of the city’s zoning process which in effect has prevented public notifications about the nature of the building use, stifling dialogue and community input. L&I’s decision-making overlooks many principles of comprehensive planning set forth in the new zoning code.
The parking lot and the six story building sit on a largely historic stretch of Germantown Avenue at opposite corners of Penn Street just one block away from Germantown Friends School, Cunningham Piano, and Grumblethorpe. A misleading sign posted on the building facade advertises it will house new market rate apartments and a cafe/restaurant space. The primary use of the building however is a 100-bed residential shelter that will serve more than 600 people each year. When pressed for more information about the additional use, Ken Weinstein has stated that he cannot legally discuss it. The building has been partially occupied since July and the commercial space is nearly complete and seeking a tenant. The listing from Philly Office Retail says “DRIVE BY TO SEE THE ACTION!!!” Spread the word…
The parking lot, which is not yet under construction, will be located on the contiguous parcels of land at 5322, 5324 and 5326-28 Germantown Avenue at W Penn Street, across the street from the building under discussion. The two other large private lots on the block serve Germantown Friends School and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Hosley Temple Church and the new Around The Clock Home Health Care office (currently under construction) have wide driveway entrances on the Avenue and private parking lots tucked away behind their buildings. The entire block has free on-street parking throughout. Which begs the question – how many parking lots are too many for one block of Germantown Avenue? Surface lots on city blocks create distance between destinations and add little to the streetscape. This dead space no doubt impacts the surrounding business corridor and overall pedestrian experience. A walk along the neighboring 5400 or 5200 blocks of Germantown Avenue tell a different story.
News of the parking lot is but one conundrum. If you’re anything like me, you probably have a lot more questions about how each component of the 5301 Germantown Avenue development will fit together. But good luck getting your questions answered.
In the interest of a more transparent process, included below is our most recent correspondence about the development with L&I.
Germantowners should have a voice in the rebuilding of our neighborhood and the right to know and ask questions about new developments that impact where we live, work and play – for better or worse.
An informed citizenry is an asset to the revitalization of Germantown.
For access to past communications, see our first letter of inquiry sent on July 28, 2014, and read the the city’s response issued by City Solicitor Andrew S. Ross on August 13, 2014.
Wednesday, September 24, 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)
Thank you for facilitating the written response to our letter re: the development at 5301 Germantown Avenue, issued by the Law Department’s Andrew S. Ross on August 13, 2014 (re-attached for quick reference). We understand the sensitivity of the matter. However, after much continued discussion, many critical questions remain unanswered.
We are requesting a more detailed description of L&I’s “Safety Services” classification and definition of “life protection” specifically as it applies to the use at 5301 Germantown Avenue.
In addition, it has come to our attention that the contiguous parcels of land at 5322, 5324 and 5326-28 Germantown Avenue (across the street from 5301 Germantown Avenue) were recently combined for the development of a surface parking lot. We have included some questions regarding L&I’s permits and approvals process for these properties as well, since the development is also owned by Ken Weinstein of Philly Office Retail (www.PhillyOfficeRetail.com) and connected to the inquiry about 5301 Germantown Avenue.
To be clear, we are not writing this letter to argue about the best use of these spaces. Our primary concern is what appears to be a blatant subversion of the zoning process to prevent community input because of anticipated neighborhood opposition.
We hope that L&I (and all government agencies involved) will follow the spirit of the new zoning code in considering this matter and answer in detail our questions below. Thank you in advance for taking the time to answer these critical questions in full, which have been grouped into sections and numbered for ease of reference.
1. The six-story development at 5301 Germantown Avenue is currently without adjacent open outdoor space or parking. We have numerous questions about how these two issues will be addressed for the whole building, knowing that the primary use is for “Safety Services” with a significant staff and residential component that includes children, in addition to the advertised 11 market rate apartments and the cafe/restaurant space. Ken Weinstein has disclosed that he will be constructing a surface parking lot with recreation space for 5301 Germantown Avenue across the street from the property, which answers some of the above questions while simultaneously creating a whole new set of questions. Namely, why establish a highly visible recreation area for people who are supposed to be protected? Will the parking lot and recreation space be open to the public? What steps are being taken to protect pedestrians as they cross two lanes of opposing traffic on busy Germantown Avenue without traffic signals?
a. Outdoor space
Since 5301 Germantown Avenue was granted temporary “occupancy of floors 6, 5, 4, and part of 3” on July 17, 2014, it has became apparent how much suitable outdoor space is needed. The floors currently occupied are in the section of the building designated as “Safety Services” – again, people deemed in need of “life protection.” The activity that near-neighbors and business owners have reported include: children playing in the street unsupervised; residents coming and going throughout the day using the door on Penn Street along the side of the building; adults hanging out and smoking outside while sitting both on the front steps of the building along Germantown Avenue’s commercial corridor and curbside on Penn Street, a residential block (in the evening, in their pajamas and night clothes); residents and/or employees parking on Penn Street. Is there no space available on-site for a private patio or seating area for building residents?
b. Impending construction of the new surface parking lot on the 5300 block of Germantown Avenue
On May 22, 2014, an application for the relocation of lot lines for the grassy parcels of land at the corner of W Penn Street and Germantown Avenue was issued:
ZON-RELOCATION OF LOT LINES: 533327
FOR THE RELOCATION OF LOT LINES TO CREATE ONE (1) LOT FROM THREE(3) OPA ACCOUNTS (5322 GERMANTOWN AVE, 5324 GERMANTOWN AVE, 5326-28 GERMANTOWN AVE) AND FROM TWO(2) DEEDED LOTS. SIZE AND LOCATION AS SHOWN IN THE APPLICATION.
Astonishingly, it took only a week to gain approval to combine the parcels and issue a construction permit on May 30, 2014:
FOR THE CREATION OF NINETEEN (19) ACCESSORY PARKING SPACES (INCLUDING ONE ACCESSORY PARKING SPACE) AND FOR THE CREATION OF PASSIVE RECREATION AREA. SIZE AND LOCATION AS SHOWN IN THE APPLICATION/PLANS.
via http://www.phila.gov/li lookup for 5322 Germantown Avenue.
This was all news to neighbors, as there was no public notification. Again, we have some questions about L&I’s designations. We are perplexed why the parking lot would be considered “Accessory Use” as the permits issued state. According to the Zoning Code, an accessory use is defined as one “that is on the same lot as a principal use on a lot” (14-203). The land in which the lot will be built is across the street and maintains separate addresses. In addition, non-accessory surface parking – which we believe this to be – is allowed only by Special Exception in CMX-2.5, which would mean it must go to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Did that happen?
While parking is no doubt a concern for near-neighbors and local businesses, the construction of yet another surface parking lot on the 5300 block of Germantown’s main street is also troubling. The block already has two large surface parking lots on the east and west sides, in addition to two significantly sized driveway entrances on the east side. It would seem that another parking lot would only work to further deaden the street. Was the Philadelphia City Planning Commission consulted?
How does the addition of yet another surface lot – with zero retail opportunity – work to promote the pedestrian-friendly retail and service uses that CMX-2.5 districts hope to achieve? Is a surface parking lot the best use of this corner parcel? If yes, how was that determined? Was new construction on this site considered unattainable? (Note, new construction in Germantown is not a pipe dream. In fact, one of the first new construction projects on Germantown Avenue in many years is currently in-progress on a once vacant parcel on the very same block under discussion, just two doors down from 5301 Germantown Avenue.)
c. Traffic and safety
What steps are being taken to protect pedestrians as they cross two lanes of opposing traffic on busy Germantown Avenue? There are no traffic lights at Germantown Avenue and Penn Street. While there are stop signs located at the corners of E and W Penn Street, there are no marked pedestrian crossings from the west side of Germantown Avenue where the parking lot would be located to the east side of the Avenue where the building in question is located.
These are all questions that we believe should have come up in public conversations with the community, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
2. As stated in Mr. Ross’ letter regarding 5301 Germantown Avenue, “In this case, L&I determined that because a significant element of the proposed use was ‘life protection,’ the subcategory of Safety Services was the most appropriate classification.” If the residents of this building need “life protection” as determined by L&I and relayed by the City of Philadelphia’s Law Department, what are the potential risks for existing neighborhood residents, local businesses, historic attractions and visiting tourists, and the numerous educational institutions for children in the immediate vicinity of the property? What safety measures have been put in place to protect both the residents of the building and the general public?
It is both alarming and baffling that an organization serving an estimated 600 residents per year, determined by the City of Philadelphia to be in-need of “life protection” would be permitted on this particular site without any public notice.
The public’s right to know about government decisions and actions that may affect their lives should not be overlooked. City Solicitor Andrew S. Ross’ response was inadequate, knowing that several City agencies were involved in the review of plans for the development and placement of the aforementioned organization.
In addition to being surrounded by residences, 5301 Germantown Avenue is located within eyesight of a nexus of institutions for children. The property is directly next-door to the play yard of the daycare at Holsey Temple (5305 Germantown Ave); across the street from the Girls and Boys Club of Philadelphia (25 W Penn St), the PAL Center (5330 Germantown Ave), Count On Me 123 Learning Center (5318 Germantown Ave), and Germantown Friends School (31 W Coulter St); and around the corner from John Wister Elementary School (67 E Bringhurst St).
As you may know, Germantown is one of America’s most historic neighborhoods. The property under discussion is located within the nation’s longest National Historic District, one that is visited by tourists and school groups year-round (www.freedomsbackyard.com). Specifically, 5301 Germantown Ave is one-block from Grumblethorpe (5267 Germantown Ave), and two-blocks from the Germantown Historical Society (5501 Germantown Ave) and Deshler-Morris (The Germantown White House at 5512 Germantown Ave).
3. Did the developer Ken Weinstein ever go before the Zoning Board of Adjustment for anything related to 5301 Germantown Avenue, or the impending parking lot at 5322, 5324 and 5326-28 Germantown Avenue? If yes, were these hearings kept off the record?
Please outline the steps that would make it legally possible that no variance(s) and/or special exception(s) were needed for any aspect related to either the building renovation or the parking lot construction, no hearing(s) before the ZBA required, and therefore no public notification(s) issued.
In addition to the above questions, we have two related and very serious concerns: the first pertains to the precedent set by L&I’s classification of a shelter as “Safety Services” and the implications that may have on future zoning issues citywide; the second relates to issues of confidentiality.
Given the vagueness of “life protection”, the shelter at 5301 Germantown has now established precedent for other applicants to claim “Safety Services”, opening up all zoning designations to such shelters without consideration of the comprehensive planning set forth in the new zoning code.
As was stated in the letter from Mr. Ross, “Safety Services is a use permitted by right in all Commercial districts, including CMX-2.5. Therefore, the permit was issued and the applicant was not required to convene or attend a community meeting under the Registered Community Organizations provisions of the Code.”
L&I’s decision, as relayed in the letter issued by the City Solicitor’s Office, undermines the new zoning overlay districts and pokes holes in the code’s “Group Living” classification, which includes “temporary overnight shelters” as an example of group living uses.
Note that “Safety Services” is defined in the Philadelphia Zoning Code only as “Establishments that provide fire, police or life protection, together with the incidental storage and maintenance of necessary vehicles.” As it stands now, the language is poorly written if the City is to stand by its decisions regarding 5301 Germantown Avenue. What will happen now that one developer has successfully claimed “Safety Services” for a shelter use?
As such, we will be petitioning 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass and other elected officials to amend the language within the zoning code to redefine “Safety Services” to exclude shelters and to specifically describe and list examples of “life protection.”
Lastly, please understand that the shelter at 5301 Germantown Avenue is anything but a secret location. Google “100 bed shelter Philadelphia” and read all about the “unnamed” non-profit’s new shelter on the website of the organization itself.
We have been told time and again – by the developer and representatives of various city agencies –that the sensitive nature of the tenant precluded open and/or public discussion of this development. It has been repeatedly implied that such discussion could endanger the non-profit and it’s residents. Yet, the existence of the new shelter and the name of the tenant was public knowledge in Germantown and throughout the city long before the construction on the facility even commenced.
Either the safety of the non-profit’s residents, and other future residents of the building, and the surrounding community has been compromised, or it was a false issue in the first place – a red herring created to stifle dialogue and prevent community input because of anticipated neighborhood opposition. Both of these options are negative, but it has to be one or the other.
Considering the breadth of these questions, we request that L&I consider hosting a public meeting in Germantown to discuss this development.
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
Jay and Jenna Jutkofsky
Residents of the 200 Block of E Penn Street
G’Town Restoration NAS Neighborhood Advisory Subcommittee Member; Block Captain and Resident of the 100 Unit Block of W Rockland Street
President, Penn-Knox Neighbors Association
Co-Organizer, The W Rockland Street Project; Resident of the 100 Unit Block of W Rockland Street
CC: Councilwoman Cindy Bass, 8th District
Theresa D. Brunson, 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
Andrew S. Ross, Chief Deputy City Solicitor, Housing & Code Enforcement Unit
Shelley R. Smith, City Solicitor