Recent waves of NIMBYism threaten progressivity, dynamism in Center City

Dilworth House
A gallery of projects scaled back or stymied because of neighborhood opposition: 1. Dilworth House condominium, Washington Square

Lately it seems Center City residential development is picking up serious momentum as new projects and proposals are popping up everywhere.  This is great news for Center City as it looks to build off continued population gains, add new residents, and become the desirable true ‘24-hour’ urban center. Standing in the way of these ideals are the same small groups of existing residents that have defined the status quo and stymied new development across cities for decades: NIMBYs.  In Philly, an alarmingly high number of recent projects have either been thwarted or scaled down due to the incessant cries of a few residents.

205 Race Street
2. 205 Race Street, Old City

Despite Market West’s latest embrace with high density residential development, much of Center City is still not too keen on the idea of taller buildings in their neighborhood.  Over in Washington Square, a developer’s desire to build a condominium tower behind the Dilworth House while repurposing the historic structure has been blocked by neighbors and preservationists desire to maintain the property as a single-family house.  In Old City, Brown-Hill Development’s plan to build a mixed-use project at 2nd and Race streets has been put on-hold because a few residents believe the new structure would be too tall and represent an “overbuildup.”

Broad and South streets
3. Dranoff Properties project, Broad and South streets

Down on Broad and South streets, a new mixed-use, TOD project being developed by the Dranoff Development Company has been scaled down because a few neighbors worried a new tall building would “loom” over their homes.  And over on the parking lot at 18th and Lombard, Noah Ostroff’s project has faced serious resident pushback because the new homes are simply “too tall.” (The Zoning Board of Adjustment approved the Lombard Estates zoning variance at its April 4 meeting. -ed.)

Architect's drawing of Lombard Street facades
4. Lombard Estates, 1800 block Lombard Street

From an urbanist perspective every one of these projects should receive the green light; none are so offensive to the existing neighborhood character to warrant such strong resentment.  Not that the expressed concerns aren’t understandable, but NIMBY attitudes alone can’t dictate Center City development policies.  By nature cities are dynamic creatures that are constantly evolving out of their current form.  The city’s zoning code and other development policies must reflect this reality and allow for flexibility to meet demands.  Quite simply, Philadelphia can’t remain in its current form forever, nor can it aspire to its colonial roots.  To do so would diminish urban progressivity, hinder business and population diversity, and thus limit person-to-person interaction in an era where knowledge sharing is increasingly important.  On top of this, scuttling attempts to increase density lead to a fixed housing supply and higher rents while lessening the City’s potential revenue streams.

No one is asking for wholesale demolition of Philly’s historic districts or skyscrapers in the middle of Society Hill or Rittenhouse.  But it’s clear a more tolerant view towards new development – especially taller development – is needed.  New urban forms and in varying locations need to be welcomed – ones that feature higher densities while still catering to quality designs that Center City residents expect.  With a more open mind towards new development, progress can be made, more residents will be welcomed, and a better Philly can evolve.

-By Greg Meckstroth for