Point Breeze has seen more residential development over the last half dozen years than perhaps any other neighborhood in Philadelphia. Even today, you’d be hard pressed to find a block north of Dickinson Street that hasn’t seen some (or a ton of) construction activity over the last year. One might think that all of this construction would translate into dramatically increased commercial activity in the neighborhood- after all, more people generally want more goods and services, and the best kinds of goods and services are generally the ones you can get near your house. And yes, we’ve seen a handful of stores and restaurants pop up around the neighborhood, but it still feels like Point Breeze has lagged from a retail perspective. And we believe most of this can be chalked up to an underperforming Point Breeze Avenue.
Turn back the clock half a century and Point Breeze Avenue was a vibrant commercial corridor, with enough businesses that people didn’t have to go into Center City to do their shopping. That hasn’t been the case for a very long time though, as the corridor and neighborhood suffered from significant disinvestment and as the area’s population dramatically contracted. As we said, we’ve seen some small improvements on the corridor but it still has a very long way to go. Some construction at 1254-56 Point Breeze Ave. certainly represents a step in a positive direction, but the project still leaves us wanting much more.
Developers bought this one-story structure about two years ago and produced a plan to build an addition onto the existing building. Those plans fell through and eventually the building got torn down and rebuilt as a mixed-use building with plans for a real estate office on the first floor and four apartments on the upper floors. The architects made an unusual choice to set the upper floors back and put them on an angle, which gives the building a very unique appearance.
While we’re not terribly excited by the idea of a real estate office on the first floor, far be it from us to criticize such a plan given the logo in the upper left hand corner of this website. No, our complaint about the project is the density. Four units is a hilarious underuse for this property, as it could easily accommodate more than double the unit count. And our argument isn’t with the developers, who we’re certain would have been thrilled to increase the density and build a more profitable building. Instead, we have to lay the criticism squarely on the CMX-2 zoning for the property, which only allows for this limited density. The developers clearly weren’t interested in the risk of going to the ZBA to get more density, so they simply built what they could build by right. In contrast, a property just a few doors to the north went to the ZBA a few years back and includes 13 apartments above a retail space.
We honestly can’t blame the developers here for taking the safe route of developing by right. Considering the time, risk, and possibility of appeal, we generally recommend that developers avoid the zoning process whenever possible. Unfortunately, on Point Breeze Avenue, by-right projects necessarily give a short shrift to the potential of the commercial corridor by limited the potential height and density. We’ve called on the District Councilman to remap Point Breeze Avenue to CMX-2.5 for years, which would allow taller buildings and more density by right. There’s currently a bill circulating in City Council that would do just that, but it would also ban three story homes from being built in most of Point Breeze and Grays Ferry. As they say, one step forward, one hundred steps back.