Newest Old Kensington proposal one mega-project too many, neighbors say

Germantown Ave & Stiles St
This collection of industrial buildings along Germantown Avenue, pictured here, and American Street in Old Kensington…

Hard on the heels of the Soko project, which passed muster with the Zoning Board of Adjustment despite concerns from its Old Kensington neighbors, comes another mega-development right across the intersection of 2nd and Thompson streets.

1203-33 Germantown Ave, Germantown Ave elevation
…will be transformed into this if Blackstone Development gets the OK from the ZBA.

At a June 19 South Kensington Community Partners zoning meeting, Blackstone Development presented its plans for a six-story-high, 277,000-square-foot mixed use development with 247 apartments, commercial and live-work space. Dubbed “Liberty Square” for now – one neighbor pointed out the development is not in Northern Liberties – the project would occupy the lot bounded by Thompson Street, Stiles Street, American Street and Germantown Avenue, a site that currently holds a collection of one-story industrial buildings.

Ground floor plan
The site plan is somewhat irregular because the developers could not acquire all the lots in the project block. Stiles Street neighbors voiced concern about the plaza entrance at the top left and, to a lesser extent, at the bottom left.

Because the land is zoned industrial, there is no height limit, but the Harman Deutsch Architecture-designed project still requires a variance because of its residential character. Hence the presentation to SKCP, where some near neighbors voiced support for the project but many more voiced objections.

Parking garage plan
The underground parking garage was added as a gesture to the community; the site’s zoning has no minimum parking requirement. Still, neighbors said 161 spaces weren’t enough.

The developers included some features intended to win favor with the community in their initial presentation, most notably a 161-space underground parking garage with bike storage. The project would have street-level retail on the Germantown Avenue side, with a restaurant at the Stiles Street end, live-work spaces along American Street with a cafe at the Stiles Street end, and street-level residential along Thompson Street. The project also features an interior plaza with a fountain and a dog park, with access to the plaza from the retail spaces along Germantown Avenue – a feature that have led many to compare this development to the nearby Piazza at Schmidt’s.

American and Stiles streets
The current American Street elevation…

Blackstone representatives explained they planned to build the project in three phases, with groundbreaking set for about five months from now. The first phase would include the Germantown Avenue building and the garage; the second, the Thompson Street building, and the third, the building on American Street.

American Street elevation
…and the proposed one. Stiles Street neighbors suggest the American Street and Germantown Avenue buildings swap places, saying most of the project’s visitors will access the site from 2nd Street to its south.

Blackstone has developed projects of similar size and scale in the New York area, but this would be its first Philadelphia project of such magnitude. The company is currently at work on a 73-unit residential project near Temple University.

While the project’s immediate neighbors on Stiles Street generally supported the project with some modifications designed to keep traffic off the narrow residential alley, one of those Stiles Street residents who attended the presentation characterized the sentiment of most other neighbors as negative. “They feel it is way too big, way too tall, with not enough parking – even though they are providing a ton of parking – and with way too many renters,” the neighbor said.

Thompson Street elevation
The Thompson Street building.

“They also don’t like the plaza. They think plazas don’t work in Philly. No one uses them and they end up being vacant spaces,” especially if the apartments around them are not owner-occupied, he said. He did not share this sentiment, saying that with proper management, plazas like this can avoid becoming derelict zones. (The Piazza, which is actively managed by its owners, offers one such example.)

Stiles Street elevation
The Stiles Street elevation. The gray box in the middle contains private residences not part of the development.

But mainly, he said, the neighbors worry that Old Kensington could become overrun with huge housing developments if both this and Soko come to pass.

Those neighbors will get a chance to vote their hopes, or their fears, when the project returns before SKCP for a vote next month.

Photos of current project site by the author