Site plans prompt flooding concerns
Last week, as reported in the page one news story, 50 neighbors and members of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association gathered at the Schuylkill Center to tell the developer of 7519 Ridge Ave. that the project he is proposing — and seeks a variance for — should not be built.
And while I rarely get involved in development issues in the community, I do want to say one thing very clearly: I stand alongside our neighbors. From an environmental standpoint, the project as currently proposed is wrong for Roxborough.
7519 Ridge is a long, skinny lot, longer than a football field, presenting its short side to Ridge Avenue. In the back of the lot, the property slopes down towards houses that front on Valley Avenue, and somewhere in the back is an encapsulated stream at the bottom of the valley that gives the road its name. The developer proposes, in this iteration, between 18 and 22 units arranged townhouse-style across the property, the units in back violating the steep-slopes prohibitions of the zoning code.
“This property has all of the standard issues civics are concerned with,” Rich Giordano, intrepid president of the civic association, told me last week, “like parking, traffic, density, quality of life for the neighbors living nearby. But it also has two issues that are bigger and areawide: the watershed ordinance and steep slopes.
“The back end of the property,” he continued, “has a stream flow- ing through it,” admittedly one that has been piped and buried underground. “But the houses behind it on Valley Avenue have always had issues of water in their yards. Houses have been settling, and some have even been demolished. The neighbors are justifiably worried about water.
“So for immediate-neighbor reasons like traffic and parking,” he told me, “neighbors are opposed. But for the macro reasons — stormwater and open space— we are even more opposed.”
Examining plans provided by the developer, it seems that more than 66 percent of the plan is labeled “open area,” and while he is entitled to build 70 percent of what is called “occupied area,” he is proposing only 33 percent. So the numbers at face value indicate an abundance of open space. But this is actually accomplished through paving the site’s driveways and parking areas with porous pavement, newer kinds of asphalt that allow water to percolate through. Storms don’t run off these pavements; they run through them. At first glance, this is great — water percolating through a parking lot — and should unquestionably be encouraged.
But the city’s relationship to porous pavement is a little confused. The city’s Northwest Senior Planner Matt Wysong wrote to me that “for this particular site, the Wissahickon Watershed Overlay limits impervious coverage to 45% of the site. Porous paving has been exempted from this calculation and the proposal meets the 45% standard.” But Giordano responded that while “the Water Department allows porous [pavement] in the calculation, there is a Zoning Board and then Common Pleas Court decision that invalidates it.”
In my work in other communities, porous pavement has not been allowed in counts yet because planners had no understanding of how long the lifespan of porous pavement is — after five years of strong storms, say, what happens when the pores in the pavement are clogged with silt and mud? — suddenly, porous becomes impervious and stormwater floods nearby homes.
Regarding steep slopes, Wysong added, “The Steep Slopes Overlay states that earth disturbance on slopes greater than 25% is not permitted. The developer is seeking a variance from this regulation and claims the steep slopes are man-made, in that a fill has been piled on-site over many years. The property survey shows seems to indicate this is true.”
Giordano’s response? “On the issue of it being man-made,” he emailed me this week, “we haven’t seen any evidence of this, and the reasons for prohibiting building on a slope that great continue to exist however the slopes came about.”
In our conversation, Giordano reminded me that Fairmount Park was created for the protection of Wissahickon Creek. “The watershed ordinance,” he said, “is not some frivolous tree-hugging thing — it has a practical application. Us demanding changes to this application is not some cover for stopping development; it is a very real worry. Even in nuts-and-bolts concerns, it’s got issues, like parking and density. But add the environmental issues immediately on site and more broadly through the area, it becomes even more odious.”
As the neighbors made abundantly clear at the meeting, Giordano, the civic and residents feel very strongly that if they cave in on these two environmental protections here, they’d have to cave in everywhere else — and then where would Roxborough be?
Councilman Curtis Jones seems to agree. After being given a tour of the site by Giordano and others, and after being deluged by phone calls and letters, the civic association says he opposes the current proposal.
“We’re not just saying no,” insisted Giordano. “There is a possible compromise that might be a scaled-down proposal that stays off the steep slopes and adheres to the watershed ordinance.”
Let’s hope the developer takes this gentler path, which better protects both neighbors and Roxborough.
The unimproved 7519Ridge Ave. lot with its neon-colored sign announcing plans for an August public hearing on zoning concerns.