On Wednesday, Aug. 8, the meeting of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals was packed with local residents as well as supporters of the Woman’s Community Revitalization Project.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted to comment on the WCRP’s proposed project at 1942 N. Front St.
It was easy to tell how many people in the room supported the plan for Front Street — they wore bright yellow day-glo stickers that read, “Yes to Housing at Front and Norris!”
The project, which hopes to see the construction of eight three-story buildings as low-income family housing, has had a rocky history; heated discussions at community meetings have taken place throughout the summer.
During a community meeting May 9 — one that included members of the Fishtown Neighbors Association, the East Kensington Neighborhood Association and the Norris Square Civic Association — the project was denied in a vote of 60 to 21.
Anyone waiting for the final decision on the project, however, might have to wait a bit longer. By the end of Wednesday’s meeting, the ZBA had not rendered a verdict, but is expected to reach one within two weeks.
At the meeting, supporters of the project touted the need for low-income housing.
The housing would displace the vacant building that now sits at the site — a dilapidated former bank building many at the meeting touted as historic. The building isn’t listed on any official historic register.
Local representatives for FNA and EKNA argued that the destruction of the bank building would alter the character of the community.
Also, representatives for local groups said that the project would include residential use on the first floor, when many hoped to see commercial use there in order to support the area’s growing commercial corridor.
What the plan would mean for the neighborhood is simple. As proposed, it would be a housing complex that would include 25 apartments within three buildings, along with a community room on the first floor and a parking lot with 10 spaces on Hope Street.
The project needed permissions from the ZBA for three issues: building multiple structures on one site; not having one-to-one parking for the units, and not having commercial activity included in the building.
Darwin R. Beauvais, attorney for the WCRP, addressed these issues one by one, first citing a study of the commercial corridor that found the corridor had shrunk by 30,000 feet in the past few years.
In fact, he told the board that the addition of residential properties on that block would improve the commercial corridor, because it would bring in revenue.
Beauvais called the old bank building “an eyesore,” and said that it has “been deteriorating for several years. It’s structurally unsound.”
He claimed to have statements from over 280 residents who live in the community closest to the site who support the demolition of the former bank.
One local resident who stood in support of the project was Tara Colon, who lives in Kensington.
“There are a lot of abandoned buildings in that area,” she said. “And to be quite honest, I’d rather there be occupied buildings there. I’d love to see more human beings on that block.”
Thomas Earle, CEO of Liberty Resources, a nonprofit that works to provide resources to people with disabilities, testified that he supported the project because the proposed housing included four units specifically designed for people with disabilities.
Andy Barrera, chair of EKNA’s zoning committee, countered that improvement and growth of the commercial corridor in that area was hampered by residential use on the first floor of the proposed structure.
“We’ve been trying to revitalize the commercial corridor here,” he told the board. “We are a hardworking neighborhood and we’ve been working hard to make it better.”
Jordan Rushdie, a local attorney representing the FNA, said that the construction of the project would destroy a historic building, when throughout the area there are vacant lots that could use development instead.
Carmen Bolden, who lives on Hope Street near the project’s proposed site, said she worries most about parking.
“Ten spots for 25 units in an apartment building is not enough,” she said. “Also, there is no green space. There’s no playground. That means these kids will play in the streets or in other unsafe areas.”
As many stepped forward to testify, frustrated ZBA chair Lynette Brown-Sow eventually told no one else to speak unless they would bring up “something new and interesting,” saying the better part of an hour had been spent discussing the project.
At the end of the day, the board did not render a verdict, leaving those who attended the meeting with little left to do but wait for a decision.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I feel like this will be really good. I think it will really improve the block,” said Nora Lichtash, executive director of the WCRP, noting that she hoped the board would approve the project.
“I think it could go either way,” admitted EKNA’s Barrera. “It will go the way the ZBA wants it to go.”
Staff Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.