Close Call

Philadelphia University’s plan squeaks by Civic Design Review over spirited opposition. 

CDR Bldg

The PhilaU institutional plan moved one step closer to passage yesterday by a 5-3 vote of the Civic Design Review committee. This PlanPhilly article lays out the details, including the vehement opposition to the ecological soundness of the plan. Having attended the meeting as an RCO rep (Secretary, East Falls Forward) here’s my take on the proceedings.

Led and organized by Jon Berger and his brother Daniel, the opposition (including several Penn professors, environmental scientists, and green design companies) focused mainly on the Wissahickon Watershed Overlay (WWO), dedicated green space, heat island effects, and a lack of connection between the campus and the Wissahickon Valley Park.

Several experts testified that the U’s proposed building zones would encroach on the WWO boundaries. The committee listened attentively, but didn’t weigh in on whether the zones did indeed violate the WWO. Fortunately there are other agencies, such as City Planning and L&I that will in the coming months.

No WWO expert here, but I am relieved that the “carve out” legislation created by Curtis Jones in June, was off the table. The legislation proposed an exception to the Wissahickon overlay which I believe would’ve weakened watershed protections and set a dangerous precedent for future construction.

I also agreed with the opposition about the need to mitigate heat island effects — particularly in regard to the U’s plan for a synthetic turf field on the Ravenhill campus (which would replace the all-grass soccer field there now).

Steve Sproles’ contention that it was necessary to allow for as many teams as possible to use the space seemed a weak argument for removing so much greenspace in favor of synthetic, and likely less porous coverage. The convenience for the U wouldn’t outweigh the environmental detriment to the community, IMO.

The last criticism by the opposition about the campus connection to the Wissahickon valley seemed ironic, given that the community criticized the 30 year plan last year for proposing to build along the campus periphery (especially anywhere close to the Wissahickon).

In response, the U massed new buildings on the interior of the campus (removing previously proposed projects, such as the parking garage near the Henry Ave bridge, the softball field at Ravenhill, and residential housing near the intersection of Gypsy and Schoolhouse.)

It also revised the overly broad 30-year plan in favor of specific “proposed building zones,” which provide a more defined development roadmap moving forward. (And also serves as a check on new development in other areas of the campus — building outside those zones would trigger another review process. As the U’s lawyer said, “we certainly wouldn’t be eager to go through another 5-year process.”)

Because of this responsiveness to community concerns, the membership of our RCO, East Falls Forward, approved the institutional zoning in March. I therefore voted in favor of the plan as a member of the CDR committee. Along with Bill Epstein, President of EFCC, we provided the deciding margin in the 5-3 vote.

Other Speakers

Quick note about two other speakers our readers are familiar with — Brendan Siltman repeated his speech from the last EFCC zoning committee meeting, including his demand for the dedication of all campus green space in perpetuity. He also criticized the U’s plan for removing 150 trees (by his count) as part of new construction. (He was apparently unmoved by Geoff Cromarty’s pledge at the EFCC meeting to plant two trees for every one felled by construction. BTW, the U’s count places the number of trees lost at about 80.)

Meg Greenfield also revisited a familiar rant — the “interior ring road” (video — starts at 3:08) in front of Ravenhill Mansion. She said the Philly Trans buses that will use the road will make a great deal of noise for neighbors. She also took a moment to castigate Philly Trans for the trouble they cause throughout the neighborhood in transporting kids to and from Mifflin School.

What’s Next?

A letter will be written by Gary Jastrzab, Executive Director of the City Planning Commission, to L&I Commissioner David Perri, summarizing all of the issues that were brought up during the CDR meeting.

Not sure what steps follow that, but we’re working now to get a quote or two from City Planning. Stay tuned.

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