Without Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s help, the Spruce Hill community will have to give up on its collectively developed plans for 4224 Baltimore Ave.
The community has come together to propose a development across from Clark Park that would offer residential condos, commercial retail, public parking and a public fitness center. But despite the neighborhood’s widespread support, this project cannot come to fruition unless Blackwell sponsors a bill to alter the site’s zoning rules. Blackwell has yet to respond to her constituents’ letters, calls and recent petition calling for her assistance.
This project would need special permission from the City Council since the plot of land is currently designated for residential use. Since this type of zoning complication is a common issue in Philadelphia, City Council’s district representatives often hold the power to decide whether or not development projects can move forward. Formally termed “councilman prerogative,” this authority highlights the negative stereotypes of Old Philadelphia government, particularly regarding images of nepotism among city officials.
“Council people often take a stance similar to Blackwell when they don’t have a political interest in promoting a development, but projects do tend to move when their friends, allies or campaign contributors are involved,” PennDesign professor Domenic Vitiello said. “This is one of the unfortunate realities of Philly’s political system that encourages petty corruption.”
Blackwell’s ongoing silence is keeping the Baltimore Avenue development at a standstill. Though the Spruce Hill District is used to seeing stalled developments, the bleak outlook of this particular project has provoked controversy due to the influential role that the community had in creating the proposal.
The development company, U3 Ventures , provided the community with the unique opportunity to participate in the process of developing a proposal for the land. After a series of meetings to hear the neighborhood’s ideas, U3 presented the final proposal this past March to over 100 community members who responded with “near universal support,” said Barry Grossbach , executive director of the Spruce Hill Community Association zoning committee.
“The proposal incorporates our input and would create a dynamic mixed-use building that would also be aesthetically pleasing,” said Douglas Naphas , president of Friends of Clark Park, the community organization that initiated the online petition asking for Blackwell’s help.
U3 declined to comment to avoid furthering tensions with Blackwell’s office.
The community continues to champion this proposal not only because it represents their collaboration, but also because they find the alternative plan much less appealing.
If the zoning code is not changed, U3 will likely stop pursuing this plan, which will make way for another developer to take over the project and build as “a matter of right” — a development approach that does not have to incorporate community input as long as the zoning code is followed.
“I don’t think anyone would blame U3 for leaving since it’s so hard for developers to do business here,” Grossbach said. “What would happen, then, is that the community would not have as much leverage in working with the new developer and the plot would be turned into a building that no one wants.”
The Spruce Hill Community Association continues to try to contact Blackwell directly, and the Friends of Clark Park petition has gained around 250 signatures thus far.
Blackwell did not return calls to her office requesting a comment.
“All we can do is promote our cause and continue reaching out to [Councilwoman Blackwell],” Naphas said. “If the project ends up being developed as ‘a matter of right,’ we would try our best to still make sure that our voice is heard.”
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