Local residents protest Pleasant Playground apartment proposal

by Patrick Cobbs
Posted 5/4/21

Neighbors of the proposed 34-unit apartment building at the corner of Pleasant Playground on Chew Avenue demonstrated Saturday in opposition to the project and to demand a more active role from city …

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Local residents protest Pleasant Playground apartment proposal

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Neighbors of the proposed 34-unit apartment building at the corner of Pleasant Playground on Chew Avenue demonstrated Saturday in opposition to the project and to demand a more active role from city and state officials when it comes to looking out for the playground.

“We’re trying to save the playground,” said Althea Banks. “I can understand maybe a couple [apartment units] but not 34.”

Neighbors have been strongly opposed to the development 6717 Chew since last December, objecting mainly to its size and what many have described as its inconsistencies with neighborhood character. The building would be larger than anything nearby and, unlike nearly every other residential property in the area, it would preserve no green space.

Neighbors have said repeatedly they could support a significantly smaller development that fit more harmoniously with the park.

The lot lies so close to the 4.5-acre park it almost appears to be part of it. Its owner and developer, Audax Properties, was scheduled to go before the Zoning Board of Adjustments Wednesday, May 5, to ask for a zoning variance. The lot is zoned for commercial use only, so variances are required for a residential building.

Audax and neighbors have met recently to try and find a compromise plan, following a routine earlier zoning denial.

The new plan appears to address a minimal amount of the neighbors’ concerns. It eliminates an entrance on Slocum Street, makes changes to trash and recycling areas, and it reduces the number of apartments from 37 to 34. Yet the building retains the same size and appearance that drew so many initial objections, with the small exception of a reduction of the roof deck wall height nearly 38 feet above the street.

“Developers who make such drastic changes to communities, it’s like a disease,” said Linda Bell, event organizer and an East Mt. Airy Neighbors board member. “They have just been able to mow through our community.”

Audax representatives could not be reached for comment, but in previous public meetings they have made it clear that they would argue longstanding environmental contamination on the lot and a planned future zoning change should allow them to build the project now, despite neighbor objections.

The lot is projected to require $172,000 in environmental cleanup from its previous use as an auto repair shop, and Audax owner, Jonathan Thomas, has argued that this cost means he needs to build the building big to get his money back.

Audax’s zoning-based argument is that since the Philadelphia 2035 Plan calls for zoning changes to this lot that would eventually allow a residential building of a similar size, this project is really in line with Mt. Airy’s future.

But the environmental cleanup costs were well known at the time Audax bought the lot last July, and Eighth District City Councilperson, Cindy Bass, who will need to vote on the Philadelphia 2035 plan before it creates new zoning law, has previously voiced objection to its call for increased residential density near Pleasant Playground.

Neighbor, Dimka Braswell, called the line of reasoning that has lead to this proposed development an outgrowth of environmental racism. Because the contaminated lot has been allowed to lay fallow for so long in this majority Black neighborhood, residents are in the position not just of living with that contamination mere feet from their playground and pool, but of having to fight off an ambitious developer who uses the same contamination as justification for pursuing an unwanted vision, she said.

For Linda Bell, the right thing to do was obvious.

“The city is not interested in the property, but they should be,” she said. “The government needs to take that land.”

She saw it as the only way to both safeguard the interests of nearby neighbors and the many park users who would be impacted by the proposed development.

Audax Properties made a request to meet with neighbors May 3, after press time. Asked how much hope she had for that meeting, Bell responded, “none.”

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