NLNA previews Poplar Street project

Conceptual renderings of 517-33 Poplar Street
Conceptual renderings of 517-33 Poplar Street

Neighbors and members of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association Zoning Committee got a first look at a proposed 40-unit condominium at 517-33 Poplar Street that would, as outlined at the Oct. 28 committee meeting, transform and potentially enliven the 500 block of Poplar Street.

And maybe enliven 6th and Randolph streets, which border the project on its sides, a bit too much, said some.

That’s because the proposed condo would contain a 41-space parking garage in its basement and first floor with an entrance on 6th Street and an exit onto Randolph. Several neighbors noted that 6th Street is already congested at Poplar at some times of day, and some motorists use Randolph, which is also one-way southbound, to avoid the backups. Adding 41 more cars to the mix, they said, would make matters worse.

That doesn’t mean they and the committee found nothing to like about owner Isaac Ohayon’s proposal. It had many attractive elements: a design that includes a small public plaza at its southeast corner. Interesting massing that featured varying building angles and heights, with a Poplar Street side that rose five stories and nearly 60 feet, then dropped down to three stories and 38 feet on its north side, where the lot backs onto a row of five homes with Randolph Street addresses accessed by a narrow three-foot-wide alley. Here architect Shimi Zaken of Atrium Design Studio placed the element everyone liked best: an additional six-foot-wide strip of vacant land, which he said would be added to the alley via easement for use by the homes’ residents. Planters and greenery would also improve the appearance of this alley.

Zakem explained that he and Ohayon wanted outdoor elements to “penetrate” the building facade; the conceptual drawings showed a Poplar Street elevation punctuated by balconies for this purpose. The shorter portions of the building would sport green roof decks for use by residents. A pergola over the building’s main entrance on Randolph would provide privacy for the units above it, and planters, benches and greenery would offer pleasant outdoor spaces for use by the entire community. In addition, an overhang on the Poplar Street side would offer a protected walkway.

Site plans with photo showing general area of project
Site plans with photo showing general area of project

Noting a large four-story rental housing project going up in the block to its west, Zakem said, “We think Poplar Street is wide enough to support this more massive building.” Not everyone agreed with this assessment. One resident somewhat incongrously called the 75-foot-wide 500 block of Poplar “a tiny area” that would be overwhelmed by the building, and an across-the-street neighbor objected to the building’s 58-foot, 8-inch height. (It couldn’t have been on the grounds that it would block light and air, as the building lies to the neighbor’s north.)

Zoning Committee chair Larry Freedman noted that as designed, the project could be built by right on the site were it not residential: the lot is zoned I-2, which has a floor-area-ratio-based height guidelines; the FAR of 500 percent would allow a building this tall. But, he told Ohayon, “If you were to go to the ZBA with this, they’d tell you, ‘You need to do a parking plan’ [traffic study].” Ohayon agreed to conduct one.

Another suggestion from neighbors Ohayon said he would be willing to consider is adding commercial space to the project. As presented, the first floor would contain the building lobby, a community room and one level of the garage. One neighbor member noted that the project actually offers the density many in the neighborhood say is desirable. “I do think density is good, and something done right in that spot could be a bridge that expands the neighborhood [to the west],” he said. “But if you have density, you should have things within walking distance, like a coffee shop.” Another resident suggested the developer consider commercial space on the second floor as well to reduce the number of units and need for parking.

One Zoning Committee member dismissed the traffic fears. “I live on American Street, and at the end of the block is American Lofts,” he said. The 10-story high apartment house with ground floor office space, he continued, “causes no problems with anything” – also countering the grumbling about rental projects frequently voiced at NLNA Zoning Committee meetings.

Freedman cautioned that any efforts to oppose the project because of its height or bulk would probably not fly with the ZBA. “You moved next to an industrial site, and they can do that with an industrial site.” But to another resident who said an industrial use would be preferable on the lot, he said, “There’s not a lot of industrial going up in the neighborhood.”

During the discussion, several neighbors pointed out that Zakem and Ohayon live in Northern Liberties and have a stake in the neighborhood’s success, in contrast to the outside builder putting up the homes in the 600 block of Poplar.

The presentation was informational, Zakem said; he and Ohayon were seeking feedback and had neither completed final designs nor sought a variance for the project. The committee obliged on the feedback, voting 6-1 to recommend Ohayon and Zakem return with more developed and detailed plans. The motion recommended they consider mixed uses for the project, including ground- and second-floor commercial space, and that they conduct shadow and traffic flow studies with options for garage access “that minimize ill effects on neighbors while maximizing the appeal of this project.”

Renderings and plans from Atrium Design Studio