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Central Roxborough Civic Association Meeting Minutes
August 4, 2016 - Special Zoning Meeting re. 451 Green Lane

CRCA President Don Simon welcomed those present and called the meeting to order.

Announcements regarding previous variance requests

4405-09 Silverwood (proposal for 3 houses)

After consideration by the CRCA Board, the official position of CRCA is “non-opposed”.

302 Leverington

This is a proposal for twins on a vacant lot where only single family detached is permitted under the Zoning Code. The Zoning Board approved the request for a variance, despite opposition by CRCA, Manayunk Neighborhood Council, and even the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. MNC has appealed the ZBA’s decision to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

Zoning

451 Green Lane

Presentation: Bill O’Brien, attorney; Fred Abrams, property owner; Rustin Ohler, principal at Harman Deutsch Architecture; and a gentleman named Ryan - last name and role not recorded.
  • The proposal is for the complete demolition of the existing structure at 451 Green Lane and the erection of a semi-detached 3-family dwelling.
  • Refusals are for: 1) multi-family residence prohibited; 2) proposed side yard is 5’ where Code calls for 8’; and 3) no parking. See our Zoning page for more information.
  • Don Simon reminded those in attendance that CRCA’s revised procedure in reviewing variance presentations is to allow the attorney/owner/developer to present, allow for questions and answers, ask the presenting parties to leave, allow for further discussion without attorneys/developers/owners present, and then to take a vote of those present to gauge opinion.
  • Attorney O’Brien described the existing structure in its current state as a non-code-conforming but legal triplex, with non-conforming side yard (right side is on property line, left side has only a 4’ side yard), and there is no parking. “If it was code conforming, the house would be about 12 feet wide.” The property received a variance to operate as a triplex and has been used as such in the past. However, when a building is demolished, the zoning reverts back and thus a variance would be needed for anything other than a detached single family structure. Attorney O’Brien described the triplex usage as “not unusual” for the 400 block of Green Lane.
  • The current condition of the existing structure is “pretty bad.” Owner Abrams would prefer to put in a new building rather than attempt to repair what is already there.
  • The front of the proposed structure would be brick with a porch and mansard roof. It is compliant with the relatively new Central Roxborough Neighborhood Conservation Overlay (NCO) except that there is no parking provided. Parking would be impossible to provide in the side or rear of the house as the lot is too narrow. The proposed building would have three separate roof decks (one for each unit) with three separate pilot houses. HVAC equipment for each unit would be located on the roof. Trash would be concealed behind a portion of the porch.
  • Ryan described the layout of the units as a “trinity…1-2-3 through the back, vertical.” One unit would be accessed from the front porch while the other two would have entrances on the side of the building. Each unit would have a basement area, 3 floors of living space, and its own roof deck. The first floor would serve as a living/dining area. Floors 2-3 would be bedrooms (2) and bathrooms. Each private basement contains a powder room and utility/laundry area.
  • Attorney O’Brien mentioned that when he presented the preliminary plans for this property to the CRCA Zoning Committee a few weeks ago, there was concern expressed that one side of the property was a flat wall without any sort of detailing or structural break. To address this concern, the plans now provide for faux windows. (Details that look like windows from the exterior but are not functional). In response to CRCA Zoning Committee concerns about the proposed height of the structure, the new designs have lowered the height one foot. It is now a little under 32’ plus the pilot houses.
  • A resident asked about the location of utility meters, and Ryan responded that they are hoping not to have them on the front, but this decision is often made by the utility rather than developers/designers.
  • A neighbor asked about the rear yard. There will be a small rear deck with a grass yard extending slightly over 25’ from the rear of the house to the property line. The neighbor, who is apparently adjacent to 451 Green Lane, then expressed frustration about a black walnut tree on Mr. Abrams’ lot that continuously encroaches into his lot and garage. Mr. Abrams and Attorney O’Brien pledged to remedy the problem.
  • A CRCA member asked how long Mr. Abrams had owned the property. He stated about 9-10 months. Don Simon added that the property was purchased on foreclosure.
  • A person present inquired about the cost to fix the issues with the existing structure. Mr. Abrams couldn’t provide an estimate.
  • A CRCA member and Green Lane resident stated that she wished to clarify the categorization of the 400 block as non-conforming. While it is true that some of the large houses on the block have been used as rentals, it is not the same as building a new triplex. Attorney O’Brien responded that there were 19-20 non-conforming uses on the 400 block and challenged anyone who thought to examine evidence he had.
  • The property has been vacant for at least the past 10 months.
  • A resident asked about parking. There is none for the current triplex, and there will be none for the new structure.
  • Another individual asked Mr. Abrams if the proposed units would be owned or rented. Mr. Abrams responded that he would be open to either. If they were rented, they would be rented at the going market rate for 2 bedroom new construction in the area, perhaps $2,000 -$2,500 a month per unit. A neighbor expressed concern that this would invite student renters, but Mr. Abrams said that was not his plan.
  • A CRCA member asked if Mr. Abrams had done other development in this community. He responded that he had. He recently rehabbed a home at 471 Green Lane, and was responsible for the new construction at 450 Roxborough Avenue (on the corner with Mitchell street, not-so-affectionately referred to as “the skyscraper” by a meeting attendee).
  • Alex F. of the CRCA Board, also a Green Lane resident, acknowledged that while there may have been variances granted in the past to convert existing large single family homes into multi-family units, it is a far cry from building new construction with a non-conforming use. The purpose of the NCO and the new zoning is to encourage multi-family use along the commercial corridor but not in the middle of a residential block, where the goal was to reduce population density.
  • An attendee asked Mr. Abrams if he would consider building a new single family dwelling on the lot. He said no. “I have a legal triplex now. I’m not asking for anything else.” Alex F. pointed out that the proposed new building would be larger than the existing structure. Mr. Abrams said it wasn’t “that much” bigger.
  • A citizen asked whether the large basement space could be used as a potential third bedroom, since it has its own bathroom. Mr. Ohler stated that they are not planning to permit it as such and there is no egress. The basement area was designed to be a family room. Since there is no powder room on the first floor where the living space is, it was put in the basement so guests would not need to go to through the residence on the 2nd and 3rd floors. A meeting attendee expressed concern that student renters will use the basement as a bedroom regardless of how it is permitted or marketed. Mr. Abrams stated that his preference is to sell the rebuilt units but that renting them out would be his backup plan. If he sold, each unit would be sold as an individual condo (not a sale of the whole building).
  • Mr. Ohler commented that the front of the new property will match and line up with adjacent properties pursuant to NCO and will be landscaped.
  • A CRCA member expressed concern about the placement of trash containers.
  • An audience member asked what the hardship was. Attorney O’Brien responded that Mr. Abrams has a vested property interest in the three-family existing legal use and the Zoning Code would require him to abandon that in order to rebuild. “That’s a hardship.” Attorney O’Brien opined that it didn’t matter what Mr. Abrams knew when he bought the property because he didn’t know what he was going to do with it when he bought it.
  • Attorney O’Brien stated that in his experience, his clients have experienced great difficulty attempting to sell single family homes in the Manayunk/Roxborough area without parking. A resident pointed out that if it’s so hard to sell one, why does Mr. Abrams think he can sell three with no parking? She stated she would prefer to see owners rather than renters in the property. Another attendee pointed out that it took Mr. Abrams 2 years to sell the Roxborough Avenue “monolith”. Mr. Abrams acknowledged that he was taking a risk, and that it was speculation that he could sell the units.
  • A Green Lane resident stated she appreciated some thoughtful design elements of the proposed building but felt that the proposal looked like a row of trinities not in keeping with the neighborhood since they are vertical and accessed through a side alley-like entrance. Her husband pointed out that the presenters had even used the term “trinity” to describe them.
  • The proposed property is 18.5’ by 29.5’ wide.
  • Attorney O’Brien then expounded on the Philadelphia Zoning Code history. The original code from the 1930s, newer than many of the houses on Green Lane, simply categorized property as residential, commercial or industrial without regard to density or specific uses. In 1962, that block of Green Lane became zoned single family. “When we talk about our neighborhood, that’s a picture of a code. The reality is different.” He reiterated that the 400 block of Green Lane is “predominantly” non-conforming with the zoning code.
  • Don Simon asked if Mr. Abrams would consider rehabbing the property. Mr. Abrams stated that while he could rehab the property and avoid coming before the civic or zoning board altogether, he would prefer to start from scratch and get civic input. Attorney O’Brien added that after meeting with CRCA’s Zoning Committee, they have already made 5-6 changes in response to input.
  • The ZBA hearing on the property is on Tuesday, August 23rd at 9:30 A.M. at 1515 Arch Street. [The presenting parties then left].
  • Q: Is the triplex still legal since that use has been abandoned for some time?
    1. I thought that if it was vacant for a certain period of time, the use expires. At the CRCA Zoning Committee meeting, Attorney O’Brien had suggested that case law requires an overt act to abandon a approved non-conforming use.
    2. Not if his permits are current.
    3. He’s not entitled to the multi-family use after he demos whether it’s ok now or not.
  • Q: So is there no way to get side or rear parking?
    • A: No, the side yard is only 5’.
  • Comment: A 3-family dwelling on a single family street doesn’t look right. The history of rentals and variance being granted shouldn’t matter. This is new construction.
  • Comment: I’ve been in the house and it’s scary in there. “It’s in deplorable condition.”
    • Comment: The building is coming down, so why grant him a variance?
  • Comment: Right now, the ZBA is approving everything, so those opposed need to bring a strong case (and attend) the ZBA hearing. While the ZBA’s decision could then be appealed to Common Pleas and then to Commonwealth Court, that would require significant financial and legal resources.
    • Comment: Agree, have to build our case at ZBA; can’t introduce new evidence on appeal.
    • Comment: We should alert Councilman Jones to our feelings on this.
    • Several attendees expressed willingness and/or desire to seek legal representation for the upcoming ZBA hearing.
  • A vote was held with 3 options: Support, Oppose, or Not Oppose.
    • Support: 0
    • Oppose: 25 (unanimous)
    • Not Oppose 0
  • Based on the vote, the CRCA will likely Oppose the requested variances, pending approval of its Board.

Adjournment

The meeting was adjourned upon motion.




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