City Selling Historic Firehouse in South Kensington

Just south of the corner of 4th & Thompson stands a stunning edifice that’s been mostly mothballed for many years. The building at 1221 N. 4th St. was constructed as Engine House 29 in the 1890s and was used by the fire department for over eighty years, until they opened a new and significantly less attractive station around the corner at 4th & Girard in 1979. Since then, according to Philly.com, the building has been used as a record storage facility for the Department of Public Property. This probably seemed like a reasonable plan in the 80s, the 90s, and even through the aughts. Today though, given the changes we’ve seen all over South Kensington, this is no longer the highest and best use for the property.

The building
Closer look

The building was designed by the Windrim architecture firm, in the Richardson Romanesque style. This is a revival style of architecture, based on European church architecture of the 11th and 12th centuries. In addition, Hidden City helpfully points out that the building includes “hints of Frank Furness and decorative elements borrowed from Pennsylvania Dutch iconography.” In short, the building is awesome, and the City’s humdrum use of the place over the last number of years has had the side benefit of keeping the building in relatively good shape. Recognizing that the building could be used for something better, the City has listed the property for sale a couple times over the last decade, offering it for $1M back in 2011, according to Plan Philly.

No sales have moved forward and the property has remained in the hands of the City, but that shouldn’t be the case for much longer. A few weeks ago, the Redevelopment Authority issued a Request for Proposals for the property, suggesting that its sale and redevelopment should move forward sometime next year. The RFP covers the building, which stands three stories tall and contains roughly 14,400 sqft of interior space, along with a large vacant lot behind the building, which goes all the way to Orianna Street. The property is zoned for multi-family use, and if a project utilizes a green roof bonus, a developer could create 26 units here by right.

Unfortunately, we don’t believe that anyone that buys this building could actually pursue a by-right development, due to the terms of the RFP. Specifically, the RFP requires that a part of the existing building be reserved for community space that can accommodate two desks and meeting space for up to 30 people, memorialized through a 99-year deed restriction. And we’re pretty sure that such a use isn’t permitted by-right in the RM-1 zoning district. So anyone that buys the building will have to deal with some zoning risk, but figure the PRA isn’t going to award the building to a developer that’s going to pursue a project that won’t be embraced by the community.

In terms of awarding the RFP, the PRA will consider several factors. Those include Financial (bid price, feasibility, financial capacity), Project (quality of design, alignment with local community, timeline), Applicant (track record, experience with similar projects, experience with PRA), Social Impact (strength of social impact plan, creativity of partnership with community organizations), and Economic Opportunity and Inclusion (commitment to diversity, inclusion of minority/women/disabled owned businesses). These are all typical parts of the PRA rubric, so anyone that’s responded to this kind of RFP in the past knows to expect this. Ditto the $25K deposit required with any application.

As for what’s going to happen with the parcel, we can only speculate. The Engine 29 building is designated historic on the local register, so it will be preserved and renovated, likely into a combination of apartments and the aforementioned community space. On the rear of the parcel, we’d expect a row of town homes if it were a developer buying the parcel privately, but we’re not sure what to expect, given the requirements of the PRA. No matter what eventually happens here, it’ll be incredibly exciting to see this building come back to life, and we’ll likewise be fascinated to see what happens to the large lot in the back. Figure we’ll have info about plans for the property within the next six months.

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