Council tables apartment proposal
Cites concerns from Park N Shop neighbors
Citing opposition from neighbors, city council on Monday tabled a proposal to build apartments in the Park N Shop plaza.
Council appeared poised to reject the project – which by law would prevent the developer from bringing forth a revised rezoning proposal for two years – but at the last minute agreed to give DSM Commercial a chance to come back with a revised plan that would address concerns.
“The overwhelming number of people in my district are opposed to this,” Councilman Chris Hamilton said.
The plan calls for demolishing the shuttered M&T Bank building at the corner of South Main Street and Apple Road and replacing it with a three-story building containing 10,600 square feet of retail space on the first floor and 12 apartments on
the second and third floors. There would be 10 four-bedroom apartments and two two-bedroom apartments for a total of 44 bedrooms.
Most of the existing, recently renovated retail space at the shopping center would remain, though plans call for demolishing 6,400 square feet of the western-most portion of the building – which Park N Shop Liquors occupied before it moved elsewhere in the shopping center – to provide more parking and create an end-cap unit.
The project requires a rezoning, comprehensive plan amendment, major subdivision and special-use permit. Last month, the planning commission unanimously recommended council approve the project, but council is not obligated to abide by the recommendation.
DSM purchased the 5-acre shopping center in 2014 – after the previous owner abandoned a highly controversial proposal to replace the bank building with a Wawa gas station – and held two community meetings to gain feedback from neighbors before going to the planning commission.
The plan originally included a drive-thru coffee shop as part of the retail space under the apartments, but DSM eliminated that after many residents voiced concerns about increased traffic and noise from the speaker.
“We have tried to work with the community. We’ve tried to collaborate,” said Mike Hoffman, a lawyer for DSM. “We appreciate the feedback we have received from the community, and it has made the plan a better plan.”
Hoffman framed the plan as an example of “new urbanism design” in which adding residential units helps create a sense of place and noted DSM plans to make the shopping center more walkable and improve the landscaping.
He acknowledged the apartments will likely attract students, but argued that the building will fit in with a number of other mixed-use structures containing student apartments that have been built along South Main Street in the past few years.
“To claim that this is a large and out-of-character addition is simply not in line with the objective facts,” Hoffman said, noting that many of the other complexes, including Rittenhouse Station directly across the street, have more units and a higher density.
However, during a nearly two-hour debate, which grew heated at times, several council members disagreed with Hoffman’s characterization of the project’s impacts.
Councilwoman Jen Wallace said the project is too close to the nearby neighborhood.
“We are ringing it with highdensity student housing,” Wallace said. “That is clearly not what the residents want.”
She thanked DSM for meeting with the neighbors but said the company has not addressed all the concerns.
“I don’t think this is in the community’s best interest,” she said.
Hamilton, too, acknowledged that DSM made efforts to improve the project, but believes the company did not go far enough.
“You’ve done a lot of good, but it’s not yet reached the tipping point where the neighborhood says yes,” he said.
Councilman Mark Morehead said he wants to see more diversity in development, rather than just housing geared toward students.
“It makes more sense to you to rent to people that can afford to pay for a bedroom more than I pay for my whole house,” Morehead told Hoffman. “I get all that, but that’s not what we’re asking for.”
Few residents spoke out against the project Monday, but others have voiced concerns at previous meetings.
Gene Lara, who lives across from the shopping center at the corner of Winslow and Apple roads, said last month he is worried about the additional traffic the project could bring.
“I’m really concerned about the impact it will have on the neighborhood,” Lara said.
On Monday, nearby resident Amy Smith said she is concerned about students cutting through her neighborhood to get to campus.
“Not discussing foot traffic is ignoring a very significant element of bringing in more [students],” Smith said.
However, more residents in attendance Monday actually voiced support for the project.
“The purple dilapidated bank is nothing but an eyesore, so I think this is really going to make it look nice,” Carmen Marra, whose Winslow Road home faces the Park N Shop, said. “Realistically, adding 12 apartments I don’t think is going to make a huge deal of traffic. There’s a million apartments across the street, ever ywhere you look.”
Rosie Zappo, whose house backs up to the Park N Shop, praised DSM for improving the shopping center, which she said was once a “dump” home to “prostitutes, drug dealers and rats.”
“They’ve done what they said they were going to do,” Zappo said. “I can’t ask for better neighbors.”
Carol McKelvey, the Winslow Road resident who led the fight against the Wawa in 2013, also praised the DSM’s proposal as a “beautiful suggestion.”
“They were willing to listen and willing to modify,” McKelvey said. “It’s a valuable precedent that has been set.”
Councilman Luke Chapman, at his final regular council meeting, was the only elected official who voiced support for the project.
“I’ve had the honor of sitting in this seat for six years, and this is one of the best redevelopment projects that have been in front of us as a council, and it’s also the roughest I’ve ever seen council be to a presenting developer’s project,” Chapman said. “I don’t know what’s going on below the surface.”
He said he fears rejecting the project would lead to a lawsuit, as well as deter other developers.
“We just made a very loud announcement that we are closed for business,” Chapman said.
He noted that DSM spent time and money trying to accommodate the community’s concerns.
“Why would any other developer go through those hurdles ever again?,” he said. “They’re going to ram by-right stuff right down our throats.”
Chapman also questioned why, if residents are opposed to the project, more did not attend the meeting to voice those concerns.
Wallace theorized that some residents made their opinions known at previous meetings and didn’t feel the need to do so again. She added that when talking to constituents, many have expressed concerns about the project.
“Yes they are not here, but they are not required to be here,” she said. “I am their representative. They have shared their concerns with me.”
Ultimately, council voted 5-1 to table the project indefinitely, giving DSM a chance to revise its plans. Councilman Jerry Clifton cast the lone opposing vote, and Mayor Polly Sierer was absent.
Under the current zoning, the company can replace the old bank building with new retail space or another business. Or, it could make another attempt at requesting a rezoning in order to allow apartments.
Hamilton told Hoffman he hopes DSM continues to work with the community.
“You can get into the courts if you’d like to, and we can leave it up to the courts, or you can be a good neighbor,” he said.
An artist’s rendering shows how the proposed mixed-use project at the Park N Shop would look from Apple Road.
An artist’s rendering shows how the proposed mixed-use project at the Park N Shop would look from South Main Street.