Here We Grasso Again

An old dream rekindles at the last EF zoning meeting, as a new one begins on Scotts Lane. And one doozie of a rumor for Midvale! 

With no voting or formal appeals for approval, August’s public zoning meeting for East Falls was surprisingly well-attended. Heading in, some neighbors seemed charged up about a pervasive rumor that Chuck’s Garage (3515 Midvale Ave) was selling to a developer, who was going to put in a big apartment building with no parking.

A community dude on East Falls Rants checked the property’s zoning and it appears to be “CMX 2.5” which allows buildings up to 55’ with no need for a variance. The property is like over 15k sq ft of area – zoning here permits one unit per 270 square feet.

“You can do a ton of units with no parking by right, “Sean Suter explained,  “57 if they build 55’ high. Damn.”

Damn indeed. So far, nothing’s been confirmed nor permits issued but neighbors seem on high alert…. Getting ready for a fight if necessary.

Perhaps that’s why the energy at this meeting was a little extra tense and reactive starting off?

EFCC president Bill Epstein seemed especially cranky, yelling at everyone to start the meeting and then refusing to acknowledge East Falls Forward. “This is a joint meeting with Ridge Allegheny Hunting Park and the East Falls Community Council!” he shouted at EFF chair Felicite Moorman, waving his arms, “That’s what the sign outside says. I’m sorry!”

No, dude, I’m sorry. Clearly, you’re having a hard time with the existence of another voting body in the community. I feel for you, really I do, but the whole temper tantrum thing in public is not helping you demonstrate authority.

And it doesn’t change the fact that East Falls has TWO Registered Community Organizations (RCOs). By law, any RCOs within specified boundaries are to be provided the same zoning information. Developers present to a joint meeting of those RCOs, who then meet separately with their general membership to discuss & vote.

When EFCC fails to provide zoning materials and include EFF in meetings/correspondence with developers, they’re limiting who gets to know about neighborhood changes that affect all of us. That’s not fair. Over 300 voting members of East Falls Forward deserve the same information as EFCC members, and an equal seat at the table. This isn’t war, or even business – it’s community, for crying out loud. You guys can do this! The word “community” is literally your middle name!

Moving onto Scott’s Lane… 

*CLICK HERE FOR MAPS/SPECS/RENDERINGS*

I think most of us agree that Scotts Lane presents both driving and walking hazards with the added complication of that CSX bridge that “owns” the stretch near Ridge Ave — seems like that part of the road can never be widened nor the bridge messed with in any way. Not to mention the 27 units coming to the corner property (where the old Catfish Café came down) will bring more cars to an area that can get congested.

So now Callahan Ward wants to bring 92 units to the big parking lot off Scotts at the railroad crossing. They’d like to green up all that concrete with natural meadow-y landscaping around a modern residential community with a mix of multi-family, duplex, and single family homes. (Owners, not renters; price points roughly high $200k’s/low $300’s with the townhomes in the $500k range)

Their project will require remapping of the lot’s zoning from RSA5 to RM1, to allow for multi-family development, so they’re gonna need community support. This meeting was just an overview, there’s nothing official proposed yet – when the builders are ready to move forward, they’ll hold another public meeting here where neighbor will be able to ask questions & voice concerns. Some key points discussed:

DESIGN: A blend of the typical Philadelphia rowhouses but East Falls has some rural elements so they aimed to combine both aesthetically. To me, the renderings kinda look like beach houses. Or maybe airplane hangars. Whatever, they’ll be off in their own little campus so it’s not like they’re competing with local architecture.

PARKING: 122 parking spaces – townhomes & duplexes will have their own parking, the condos will share the remaining perimeter spots with guests.  (Breakdown 70 duplexes, 10 single family, 12 triplexes, 42 guest/visitor)

TRAFFIC: They’ve done a traffic study and data conservatively shows that there would be minimal impact on Scott’s Lane’s traffic even during peak times. Still, to further facilitate traffic, the developer is creating a 2nd point of entry off a drive that’ll go behind NewCourtland and come out at Henry Avenue (at the light across from Abbotsford).

Their numbers for this model show that drivers will add 36 “trips” in and out to Scotts Lane during peak hour (7:45 – 8:45am, 5:00pm – 6:00pm). Which is an insignificant number with no impact on traffic. “It’s like one car every three to four minutes,” their traffic engineer explained.

Despite these assurances, neighbor responses seemed overwhelmingly fearful of the traffic this development would produce. “You don’t live here, you don’t know!” was the general reaction to Callahan Ward’s research & data. When asked what times she considered “peak hours” for traffic in the neighborhood, one woman insisted, “24/7, it’s a constant wave of cars.”

How do you argue with that? Callahan Ward tried to address the same points a few times over, and then stressed that their presentation was just an overview, they will be returning to the community for more feedback soon (likely this fall).

So – Grasso! IT’S ALIVE!!!

*CLICK TO VIEW CURRENT PLANS*

That ugly lot across from the Falls Bridge. Trash-strewn site of the old “Rivage” night club and lingering blight on our business corridor. Back in 2016, Grasso Holdings sold us a 6-story apartment building with a café and a supermarket and Indego bikes and subterranean parking and a cool “green wall” art installation and he had community support and the city’s permission and we were all waiting for him to break ground but then…. <crickets>

Now the project has risen again and Grasso’s ready to get rolling asap! The project has a new architect now, KTGY Group out of the DC area. For the last year they’ve been tweaking the plans, and they’ve changed it enough to call for another Civic Design Review, which means the city wants to take a look at the design before they start building. FYI, their findings are not binding and the project can go ahead regardless of how CDR feels. As part of this process, another public meeting needs to be held in the community, which is also basically a formality.

At this month’s zoning meeting, Grasso Holding’s Director of Development walked the audience through the presentation they’ll be giving for the CDR September 4th.  Updates to the original plan include:

A straightforward wood frame construction. Instead of six stories at 80 feet high, the building will be five stories and only 60 feet – four stories of residential, with commercial on the ground floor. 142 units, down from 204 – with 118 parking spaces for residents as well as customers. There will be no underground parking. They still plan to include a café, an Indego bike station and also some sort of fresh market or grocer.

Entrances on Ridge and Kelly Drive (on Kelly, only right turns in and out). PennDOT is still requiring them to add a 3rd lane on Calumet (for turning) and one on Ridge (rush hour traffic, off-peak parking).

Neighbors spent quite some time arguing the finer points of traffic flow and parking availability, neither of which matters – this project has been approved. The meeting was just an opportunity for the community to weigh in on the architecture, because it’s often helpful for designers to get input from outside sources. Grasso’s architects are not required to take the advice given them, it’s just like a service the city provides for new construction of a certain scale.

Two voices going way back with East Falls’ Development Corporation chimed in about the wall proposed on Kelly Drive. “Didn’t that cut us off from the river that whole length?” board member Carolyn Sutton wanted to know. Gina Snyder, former executive director (2001-2017) urged Grasso Holdings to be very mindful to build so that the parked cars are not visible from the street. And to work on treatments and plantings for the wall, to help break it up and make it look as green and attractive as possible.

As for a timetable, they’re hoping to break ground soon after their Civic Design Review meeting. Then their General Contractor will work out logistics for drop-off of materials, crew parking, etc. and run that by the community. Construction is expected to take about two years.

LOCAL RCO FEEDBACK:

The next night at East Falls Forward’s general meeting, members agreed that the Grasso project’s big brown metal wall along Kelly Drive was unfortunate. “We’re in a park, it should be green,” Carolyn Sutton said to a room of nodding heads,  Overall, however, everyone seemed excited about the new momentum for sorely-needed development at the heart of our business corridor.

RAH Civic Association’s Rose Cooper expressed amazement – and concern – about so much new construction coming to the area. Not just East Falls but our whole corner of NW Philly, especially her neighborhood of Allegheny West, where developers have pretty much snapped up all the saleable land and have begun methodically rebuilding the neighborhood.

On North 34th Street, across from Laurel Hill Cemetery, a massive, multi-phase commercial/residential project will be creating a new street for 100 – 200 units at completion. On the other side of the neighborhood, NewCourtland’s adding 120+ units of senior housing. Not to mention the 27 apartments approved for the Catfish lot, and plus possibly these 92 units Callahan Ward is proposing.

“It’s a lot of change, and so fast too, “ Rose told us. Already concerned that her community will be squeezed out by encroaching gentrification, she’s doubly worried that the entire area will pillaged by builders seeking a quick buck with no regard for our home. “We have to work together, “ she said, “Whatever it takes, we need to get along and not let these developers take advantage.”

GET INVOLVED! East Falls Forward is the neighborhood’s pro-urban RCO, dedicated to making East Falls a walkable, sustainable neighborhood with attractive places to eat, shop, and do business. FREE to join! Online voting for important issues like zoning, traffic, parking, new business, and more. Over 300 members, since 2015. East Falls’ only democratic voting body. 

Members meet the 3rd Thursday of every month at BuLogics (3721 Midvale) for a community happy hour followed by information and informal discussion about topics affecting the neighborhood. (6:30pm – 8:30pm)  NEXT MEETING THURS SEPTEMBER 20th.

JOIN EFF! It’s free and puts you on the mailing list for development info, future meetings & votes: EastFallsForward.org/join-east-falls-forward

ENGAGE:
Facebook: www.facebook.com/EastFallsForward/
Nextdoor: https://eastfallsphi.nextdoor.com/groups/
On Slack: http://eastfallsforward.org/discussion/

JOIN RAH! Optional dues are $10/year and usually help fund a summer block party or field trip for neighborhood kids. Members generally meet every fourth Thursday 6:30 pm at St. James School (3217 W. Clearfield St. 19132 map) Email RAHCivicAssociation@yahoo.com for the next meeting’s date & agenda.

 

 

6 Comments

  • Jake Margerum

    Thanks for the update. I support the Grasso project finally breaking ground especially at the reduced scale. Rose Cooper is absolutely right that we need to support the whole community and prevent rogue developers from running roughshod. To me, the Callahan Ward proposal looks too dense for the site and will create traffic snarls at multiple points. I like the idea of purpose built duplex and triplex buildings as long as they are owner occupied or professionally managed but that is a lot of units and parking in a relatively small site.

    • Carolyn Fillmore

      Thank you so much for chiming in, Jake, I am wondering how I feel about the Scotts Lane development and I value your input very much. How many units do you think would be ideal in this location? I always have such a hard time trying to picture big projects like this…

  • Matthew

    I think it would be great to develop that Scotts Lane sure, but I would like to see ALL traffic directed out onto Henry. Scotts Lane is too busy for even one more car — one more! The propert own at the intersection of Scotts and IQL also needs to get rid of their illegal parking zone and restore a proper sidewalk. I don’t know how they’ve gotten away with that for all this time, but’s it’s a major hazard for pedestrians, and it will get only more dangerous with increased traffic flow.

  • Sean

    Matthew,

    Can you be more specific as to why you believes Scotts Lane cannot handle “one more car”? I’ve not been a Fallser for as many centuries as others, but I can’t recall seeing a single “jam” on Scotts Lane in the few years I’ve lived here. It is a well-traveled road and absolutely needs repair (not to mention a widening that the railroad will never allow), but it doesn’t seem overloaded to me. I don’t live over there though, so I’d be interested in your perspective.

  • Matthew

    Sean,

    It’s a dangerous logjam. Scotts Lane joins Indian Queen at a treacherous blind bend in the road. IQL is tricky enough as it is in that spot because of the speed cars travel as they whip around that bend, where the centerline of the road is really just a tepid suggestion. It’s the worst possible spot for an additional road to dump in at an oblique angle. I listen to brake squeal day and night. Both these roads are used a cut-through shortcuts by those passing through, who often don’t stop at the stop signs at either IQL and Scotts or IQL as Vaux. The common understanding seems to be that since you’re driving uphill, it’s sufficient to just ease off the throttle by a nominal amount (if even — I often hear cars zip through both stops without the engine even revving down). Cars parked along the stretch are in constant danger because of this driving (I’ve been hit twice while parked). The property at the IQL–Scotts intersection doesn’t have sidewalks, but instead paved the area over to make two or three illegal parking spots. When cars are parked there, pedestrians are forced to walk out in the road, at their peril, since cars coming down IQL whip right onto Scotts at high speed. This includes kids on the way to the playground/ball fields. Further down Scotts, a sidewalk reappears until you get to the train tracks. Pedestrians continuing further down (to the climbing gym and other spots down below) are forced to walk on a road with no sidewalk, no shoulder, and face cars racing up the hill around a curve obscured by vegetation and fallen wood that literally rests in the street, and cars racing down the hill who practically do a ski jump over the railroad tracks without a clear view of what’s in the road beneath. Scotts Lane is also already heavily traveled by commercial vehicles, including big rigs making deliveries to the back entrance of Falls Center who often get hung up and stuck trying to get around the corner. We also put up with a lot of noise already coming from that vicinity, including the garbage trucks which come for the dumpsters around 4 AM. Because of the steepness of both IQL and Scotts, cars often get stuck trying to come up the hill. On more than one occasions when I’ve gone outside to help push someone’s car, I’ve almost ya gotten clobbered by a car coming downhill that couldn’t stop for the stuck vehicle. Even in nice weather, all it takes is a FedEx truck stopped on IQL for a delivery and all pandemonium breaks loose, as cars approach at high speeds from three different directions and try to squeeze through one lane.

    It’s a nightmare intersection. And adding the stress of a development to it is asinine, when there is a perfectly good high-capacity roadway with a light intersection that could be used just as easily. Im not in favor of any access from Scotts whatsoever.

  • Sean

    Matthew,

    Thanks for the write-up, those are indeed some major issues. It definitely sounds worthwhile to bring up at one of the community meetings or to Councilman Jones, if there are so many safety issues occurring.

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