Last week, the Society Hill Civic Association held a meeting to vote whether or not to approve a proposed 15-story, 150-room hotel to be built in a vacant crater near Front and South streets. The meeting ended with a tie vote of 12-12, and left the SHCA bitterly divided, with neighbors shouting and hurling personal attacks. This is hardly a rare happening in Philadelphia.
Because of our outdated zoning codes, almost every building proposal must petition the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustments for special approval to start construction. As the existing zoning codes are nearly 50 years out of date, they fail to account for many modern building practices. This means even state-of-the-art structures are technically “illegal” to build in Philadelphia without special paperwork filed by the ZBA. Unless a project has heavy political backing, this is unlikely to happen without expressed support from the local neighborhood association, leading to numerous meetings in the vein of last Wednesday’s escapades.
The meeting itself boiled down to absurd quibbling among neighbors as to whether the developer was ruining the fabric by proposing a 15-story “high-rise.” Neighbors railed about everything from the shadows the terrible monolith would cast to the impact of tall buildings clashing with the “historic” character of the colonial neighborhood. As if the absurdity of debating whether mid-rise buildings should be built in Center City wasn’t enough, the meeting took place in the shadows of I.M. Pei’s triplet 30-story Society Hill Towers, a neighborhood landmark.
The details of the squabble in the neighborhood association are largely just window dressing for a larger problem in Philadelphia. The fact that multi-million dollar development projects in our central business district can be derailed by even light neighborhood opposition is a disservice. Our zoning process relies too heavily on neighborhood meetings, which are typically lightly attended. Even then they are usually only attended by people so opposed to a project that they will take time out of their day to debate its existence. Supporters of building projects rarely are fervent enough to spend hours talking about them.
Even a project, such as the one in question that has been almost universally praised by architects, can be assailed simply for not maintaining a status quo that is defined by a handful of angry residents, many of whom admit their greatest concern is simply not wanting to deal with shadows. This height of self-interest fails to consider the larger role these buildings serve in tying our city together and bringing needed economic stimulation to our city.
But the greatest problem in the Philadelphia system is not simply that we have no shortage of angry, bored people willing to waste time arguing over whether 11 stories is better than 15. It is that we have such an embarrassingly out-of-date zoning code that we actually have to have meetings for every development where laypersons decide whether, in their opinion, a building is too big, too dense, or any combination of factors. These types of meetings should be the exception, not the rule.
The future of the hotel, deemed “Stamper Square” by developers, is uncertain. In the meantime, the vacant lot off of South Street continues to sit empty, as it has for over a decade. While the 24 board members of the SHCA continue to bicker over whether the development will be a drain on the neighborhood, the city is deprived of jobs and still saddled with an ugly concrete ditch a block from one of our most heavily trafficked and well known streets. This is a drain on the neighborhood already.
Ryan Briggs can be reached at email@example.com.