July 16th City Planning Commission Meeting Reviews Zoning Variance at 1600 Carpenter and Highlights Flaws in Philadelphia’s City Planning System

By: Michelle Laggan

Photo: OCFRealty.com

Hoa Binh Plaza is a Vietnamese shopping center, located at 1600 Carpenter Street, which is home to 10 small businesses. After OCF Realty published an article stating that the plaza would soon be demolished by developers at Streamline, Vietlead, a grassroots community group, began organizing an opposition movement to protect the small business owners in this community. 

The case to save Hoa Binh Plaza has gained significant traction and media attention, not just because it is a beloved cultural hub for many, but because the developers that recently bought the plaza failed to notify tenants that they had applied for a zoning variance for the property, and planned to demolish the shopping center and replace it with luxury housing. Thus, none of the business owners were able to represent themselves or provide feedback at the neighborhood Civic Design Review (CDR) meeting at which the South of South Neighborhood Alliance (SOSNA), the coordinating Registered Community Organization (RCO) in the area,  approved the developer’s project plans. 

This issue was presented to the City Planning Commission at their monthly meeting on July 16th. The City Planning Commission does not typically review cases for zoning variances, but an exception was made in order to “inform the testimony that the planning commission will give at the ZBA (Zoning Board of Approval) meeting”, said the commission’s chairman, Anne Fadullon. The Zoning Board of Approval will make the final decision on Streamline’s request for a zoning variance (which allows developers an exception to the area’s zoning restrictions) on July 24th. Although the Planning Commission ended up voting to oppose Streamline’s request for a zoning variance, the meeting brought to light some negligent practices of the Planning Committee and inadequate regulations for developers which showcase exactly why gentrification has become synonymous with displacement in recent years. 

On Monday, July 15th, organizers from Vietlead were notified by the City Planning Commission that Streamline’s proposed zoning variance for 1600 Carpenter Street would be reviewed at 1:30pm the next day at the Planning Commission’s monthly meeting. 

Lan Dinh and Quynh Nguyen from Vietlead were present to represent both the local Southeast Asian communities as well as those who live in the tristate area and rely on Hoa Binh Plaza as a place to connect with and preserve their own cultures. 

Nguyen stated that after speaking to the business owners, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, relevant RCOs and neighbors, “the majority of the feedback has been that there’s a lack of transparency and confusion…the businesses inside the plaza have reported a loss of 50% in foot traffic into the plaza, because nobody knows what’s happening. In addition to that, we, as in Vietlead, have been receiving reports that owners are getting frequent, to the point of becoming harassing, visits from L&I (Licensing and Inspection)… it really looks like minority businesses, small business owners are being taken advantage of by a larger company…processes and protocols that have been put in place are not being followed by the developer.”

Dinh finished Vietlead’s statement, saying: “One last thing I’ll say, is that the neighbors reported that they did not get the notice of the June 4th hearing, which we know is also supposed to be a part of the process … so that they can vote.” Neighbors purportedly stated that if they had notice, they would not have voted in favor of the developer’s plans.  

Ms. Shikomba, of the North Of Washington Ave Coalition (NOWAC), the other RCO in the area of the proposed demolition, also pointed out ways in which the City has failed to include community members in its decision making processes: “I was not even informed about this meeting until 9:30 this morning…That should not have happened. You don’t put things on [the agenda] at the last minute because then you don’t give the community a chance to respond to anything.” Council members later stated that they were given notice of this issue being added to the meeting agenda the Friday prior.

Commission Chair Fadullon addressed the lack of proper communication between the developers and the business owners, “ Although there [are] certain notice requirement that is part of the zoning code for the RCO…if it’s an operating business…common courtesy is to make sure that the business owners and whatever is going on at that site are aware of what’s happening, whether or not that’s actually written in a regulation.” She also said that, although the city is putting regulations in place to help prevent housing displacement, the city needs to do a better job of preventing commercial and cultural displacement. 

Developers abuse their power and take advantage of citizens, and in this case, an underserved cultural group, because there are not adequate rules to prevent them from doing so. When developers are going to tear down the property where someone lives or works, they should be required to show proof of receipt of adequate notice by all concerned parties. Relying on developers to be “courteous” to citizens who stand between them and millions of dollars is willful ignorance at best. Commission Chair Fadullon also failed to comment on the alleged harassment in the form of false tips to L&I, as well as the financial losses that the Plaza faced as a result of Streamline’s negligence. Last, relevant parties and RCOs  should be notified at the same time as the Planning Commission, not the day before, and certainly not the day of. How can the City expect developers to give its citizens proper information and notice of important city planning meetings is they can’t do so themselves?

Ms. Shikomba brought up another important concern, after the committee cited the proposed project not being consistent with either the current or the proposed zoning for the site as a reason to oppose the proposed variance.  “The planning commission has seen numerous developments along Washington Avenue in the past year, and each time, the commission has advocated for those projects to be designed in alignment with IRMX or the spirit of IRMX, even if the parcel is zoned industrial”.

Shikomba replied  “Concerning your concern about the rezone, yes, Councilman Johnson has introduced a rezoning [plan] concerning Washington Avenue, not just Washington Avenue but most of South Philadelphia.  That is on hold right now, because of the opposition he has incurred, so he had to pull back on that. What’s going on in September, we do not know.” 

A bill was proposed by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson in November 2018 that would rezone West Washington Ave, among other areas in South Philly, from Medium Industrial (I2) to Industrial Residential Mixed Use (IRMX). This would allow for the radical reshaping of the surrounding community. The bill is pending review and will be voted on in September, because it has faced significant pushback from the community. Despite the opposition from community members, the City Planning Commission is advocating for zoning decisions to be in accordance with a bill that has not yet been passed by City Council. For the City Planning Commission to be “advocating for zoning decisions to be made in accordance with or “in the spirit of” a bill that has not been passed due to opposing community feedback is a blatant erasure of community voices by the planning commission. 

Three spokespeople spoke in favor of the redevelopment project, representing the owner of the 1600 Washington Street property, the development firm Streamline, and the architectural firm responsible for designing the proposed housing complex. They stated that they would be including four units to be sold for $240,000 in order to include “affordable” housing units in accordance with requirements laid out for them by SOSNA.

The illusion that four out of 44 houses priced at 80% AMI (Area Median Income) is adequate “affordable housing” is a dangerous one. These are the numbers that the developers worked out with SOSNA after they initially proposed their plans. 80% AMI is housing for people who can already afford housing.  SOSNA had the ball in their court, since the proposal likely would not have gotten past the CDR had they not given their approval. The fact that they created the guidelines by which Streamline came up with these numbers shows that the RCO has little concern for protecting those members of its community who are most vulnerable to displacement. 

Gentrification does not have to displace thriving businesses and long time residents, but without proper regulations placed on developers, committee members who play by the rules, and housing that is affordable to those without the economic freedom to live in luxury condos, it surely will. The City Planning Commission made a feel-good decision to go against the demolition of Hoa Binh Plaza on July 16th, but unless they fix the problems within the system, many working class citizens will continue to have their input on city planning ignored.

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