Point Breeze group backs limits on building

Posted: March 24, 2011

The city's newest gentrification battleground appears to be the Point Breeze neighborhood in South Philadelphia.

At the urging of a neighborhood citizens' group, Council President Anna C. Verna has introduced a bill that opponents say would bring development there to a virtual standstill.

The bill would forbid for one year the construction of buildings or roof decks that exceed two stories. The moratorium would cover 100 city blocks - a huge swath of the neighborhood, which runs from Washington Avenue south to Moore Street and from west of Broad to 23d Street.

Supporters pushed Verna for more than a year to introduce the legislation, which they say is necessary to preserve the character of a neighborhood dominated by two-story homes.

But the measure sparked a huge backlash, and during two hours of testimony on the bill Wednesday, classic battles of a neighborhood in transition were drawn.

Longtime residents feared rising property taxes and other changes that could force them out - an experience seen in the neighborhood across Washington Avenue.

"Before we know it, we won't be able to live in Point Breeze because we'll be taxed out," said Betty Beaufort of Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze.

The group brought a busload of people to the hearing to show their support for Verna's bill.

"We're not saying we're against development," said Tiffany Green, also with the group. "We're saying respect our community."

New census data show large changes in the population of Point Breeze last decade, as growing numbers of white, Hispanic, and Asian residents moved into what is still a majority-black neighborhood, though the black population shrank nearly 20 percent.

Countering Concerned Citizens, other community groups, newer residents, Realtors, and city officials expressed opposition to the bill.

Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger testified that the city planned to invest $7 million in federal money to develop Point Breeze in the next two years. The moratorium would "seriously impact" those plans, including 11 proposed three-story homes at 17th and Federal Streets.

"This bill will not preserve the character of Point Breeze but rather ensure the suppression of property values and the drain of investment," he said.

If the federal money isn't spent, it must be returned, Greenberger said.

"I don't know how we can afford to turn money back," Verna said. "If ever an area needed more funding, it's the Point Breeze area."

A representative from Kenny Gamble's Universal Cos. Inc., which recently won a $500,000 federal grant to fight blight and address economic and education issues in the neighborhood, also spoke against the bill.

Councilman James F. Kenney compared the changes in Point Breeze to the tensions sparked by the gentrification of Queen Village in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"It makes people afraid," he said. "I've seen the stress."

While he said Verna's bill went too far, he suggested another hearing that would "go on as long as need be" for everyone to be heard.

Verna agreed to hold the bill, with all of its complex and emotional issues.

"We could listen to everyone in the room today and nothing would be resolved," she said.

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com.

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