Changing Skyline: Including neighbors in planning process

A developer wants to build an apartment house on this overgrown lot at Baltimore Avenue and 43d Street in West Philadelphia, and residents of the Spruce Hill neighborhood are helping plan the project.
A developer wants to build an apartment house on this overgrown lot at Baltimore Avenue and 43d Street in West Philadelphia, and residents of the Spruce Hill neighborhood are helping plan the project. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 14, 2013

The first time Omar Blaik met with residents of West Philadelphia's Spruce Hill neighborhood to discuss his proposal for a large, new apartment house on Baltimore Avenue, he did something unusual in the high-stakes world of real estate development: He showed up without a PowerPoint.

There were no gauzy architectural renderings, no images of sleek, modern kitchens, no floor plans. Instead, he handed out blank sheets of drawing paper and colored markers.

"You have nothing to oppose," Blaik declared, explaining that the building hadn't yet been designed. "Tell me what you are for."

It seems safe to say that few community meetings in Philadelphia start off this way. Developers typically march in with a finished set of architectural plans, declare the building the greatest design since City Hall, and then stand aside to wait for the blowback. Residents, meanwhile, often feel that they've just been asked to accommodate a spaceship in their backyard. The ensuing negotiations rarely end amicably.

But Blaik, who lives in West Philadelphia, an area known for contentious debates and activist politics, envisioned his multimillion-dollar investment as a partnership with his neighbors.

Over three meetings this summer that were fueled by platters of falafel and bottles of beer, his company, U3 Ventures, and the Spruce Hill Community Association hashed out the kind of building that they thought suited both the neighborhood and the investors. Then they proceeded to literally sketch the broad outlines of the design with help from Blaik's architect, Cecil Baker + Partners.

The architecture of the building, which would face Clark Park on its 43d Street side, is still rough, but Blaik's collaborative process offers an intriguing model for Philadelphia's rapidly changing rowhouse neighborhoods - from South Kensington to South Philadelphia - that are seeing a surge in apartment projects.

Blaik's proposal is much denser than the three stories the zoning allows, but residents have come to support, and even welcome, the prospect of a mixed-use, 10-story building, says Barry Grossbach, the zoning chair for Spruce Hill Community Association.

"I've been to a lot of community meetings in my life," Grossbach says, "and these were without the usual rancor."

Erin Engelstad, head of the Friends of Clark Park, adds that she left the discussions feeling "excited to see what happens next."

It's worth noting that Blaik's process, and the community response, contrasts sharply with the approach that developer Carl Dranoff used for his Schuylkill River tower - even though Baker is the architect for both projects. Dranoff fashioned his project to comply precisely with the zoning, and was praised last week at a Civic Design Review hearing for doing so. Yet, for the most part, the Fitler Square neighborhood dislikes the results, primarily because of the height and density.

Blaik freely admits that his collaboration with the neighborhood was motivated by self-interest. Although the overgrown property at Baltimore and 43d Street is quite large by city standards - 1.5 acres - and sits in the middle of the blossoming Baltimore Avenue commercial corridor, its zoning is outdated and allows only a three-story building. Blaik knew he would need community buy-in for a zoning change.

So, how did Blaik and U3 Ventures persuade Spruce Hill to see the upside in supporting a taller, denser building than the zoning permits?

Blaik, who previously managed the University of Pennsylvania's real estate, began by doing what developers do - painting a vivid portrait of the site's possibilities.

Spruce Hill was built in the late 19th century as a streetcar suburb, and it offered convenient transit to Penn and Center City. Its Victorian houses are shaded by century-old trees. The site has clear views of Clark Park, which has become a beloved town green. Yet, because of the long frontage on Baltimore Avenue, Blaik felt the site cried out for a multistory building that could accommodate retail and restaurants.

Had U3 Ventures stuck with the three-story height limit, Blaik says the only viable project would have been an apartment house aimed at students - something the neighborhood already has in excess.

So, at the first meeting in June, he held up a drawing of what that student housing might look like. No one liked it. Then he asked residents what they preferred. Predictably, many people said rowhouses.

Rather than accept that option, Blaik asked residents to break into small groups and work with a facilitator to identify what features they valued most in a new development.

If that sounds familiar, it's because the same process was introduced to Philadelphia a decade ago by PennPraxis to help reimagine the Delaware River waterfront, and it has been applied dozens of times since then to draft city master plans. But this may be the first time the model has been used to design a single building.

By the third meeting, Spruce Hill residents knew exactly what they wanted: A setback from 43d Street to preserve views of the park. A mix of condos and rental units. Space for a high-end restaurant with outdoor seating, and a veterinarian's office. Unlike most neighborhoods, they even asked Blaik to limit the amount of parking to 65 spaces, all below ground.

Blaik accommodated all the requests, but explained that he needed to increase the number of units from 92 to 140 to cover the extra costs, doubling the allowable square-footage. By then, Baker had sketched a design that showed a five-story building facing the park, hinging at the midpoint, and then rising to 10 stories along Baltimore Avenue. During a show of hands, only one of the 40 people objected.

City planners are also in favor of the project. Now Blaik will need to persuade City Council to change the zoning.

The irony is that U3's proposed design reflects two bedrock values in the new zoning code and comprehensive plan: more density and less parking. Most planners would agree that those ideas are essential to making cities desirable places again.

That's the theory, anyway. The reality is that both ideas still make the public nervous. Managing change has always been about helping people understand how they can benefit. If those new ideas are to take hold, urban design will have to become a lot more collaborative.


Contact Inga Saffron at ingasaffron@gmail.com, 215-854-2213 and on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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