In recent years, the convergence of 23rd Street, South Street and Grays Ferry Avenue has become something of a neighborhood destination. The triangle boasts contemporary attributes like an outdoor plaza seating area, an Indego bike dock, a tavern serving craft beer and a daycare center, all while sitting in the shadow of a massive historic building.
It’s quaint in what’s becoming the typical modern Philadelphia way — and it’s also sparked some of what’s becoming the typical modern development controversy.
That historic property at 2300 South St. was originally built as a silent movie theater, according to owner Jason Nusbaum. After he bought the building, he found a 65-by-40-inch Charlie Chaplin poster inside, plus a handful of telegrams, which he called “the equivalent of a modern-day text message.”
As Nusbaum works to renovate the building, that intersection is consumed by construction. It’s loud, and it scatters dust all over, making it difficult for neighbors to enjoy the corner.
So there’s been plenty of speculation about what he’s got planned.
A recent rumor suggested he might be building an Amazon pickup center, and zoning documents suggested there might something to it. In January, Nusbaum was awarded a permit to allow the “storage of products for sale and delivery, to also include customer pickup of previously-purchased items.”
Not so, Nusbaum said. And that rumor is just one among a handful he’s heard about his own property.
“I’ve heard liquor store, I’ve heard mosque,” Nusbaum told Billy Penn. “I do not know how these rumors get started, or how they blow up.”
A ‘neighborhood philosophy’ that welcomes big biz
The Amazon rumor generated some controversy for a couple of good reasons. First, the building is only zoned to include six parking spots — hardly enough to welcome those massive delivery trucks.
And second, a pickup center would have been uncharacteristic at that intersection. It’s marked by outdoor seating and small businesses, and a pickup center might have brought traffic and chaos.
But the local neighborhood association would’ve supported the idea.
“An Amazon-like thing would help local businesses with more foot traffic, more people visiting the neighborhood,” said Kevin Brown, chair of the board at the South of South Neighborhood Association. “The hope is, with a great tenant, people walk around more and hang out.”
“Our neighborhood philosophy,” he added, “is always to promote all economic development.”
Indeed, that neighborhood philosophy has been at the forefront for SOSNA the past few years. Brown is on board with big businesses coming to his neighborhood.
“As chair, during my tenure, we are getting a Starbucks, a Wawa, a Walgreens, a Popeyes, a McDonalds,” Brown said. “In general, we’ve seen a trend to have more local and national chains come into our neighborhood.”
Few things can be pinpointed to an exact beginning. But this neighborhood philosophy — the tendency toward big business and development — began definitively in 2014, with a dramatic encounter between two neighborhood groups.
And that battle was about this exact same property.
Drama between neighborhood groups
Four years ago, developer Nusbaum proposed a zoning variance at 2300 South St. — for which he would have needed neighborhood approval. He wanted to turn the space into a mixed-use commercial space, where he could build up eight inches to fill with more businesses, and maybe some apartments.
That’s the same time that Brown first got involved with SOSNA. The first zoning board meeting he ever attended was for 2300 South St.
“At the time, I was just a neighborhood resident interested in learning more about the development process,” Brown said. “Things have come a long way since then.”
Here’s where the drama begins.
SOSNA, an RCO notorious for its support of business development, jumped right on board. But the South Street West Civic Association, a smaller RCO that has since folded, opposed it.
“A lot of people were really keen to see it developed into a more productive use,” Brown said. “The other side of the equation didn’t like the density, they had concerns about the parking situation.”
In the end, the project itself didn’t get very far. SSWCA’s opposition was enough to bring it to a halt. But the conflict between the two RCOs left a lasting impact on local government in the neighborhood. Turns out, neighbors got really frustrated by the disagreement between the RCOs, and a lot of them felt like their voices weren’t being heard in the heat of the argument.
“You have to expect that kind of response from a few people in any neighborhood,” Nusbaum said. “But it was quite unfortunate the way things unfolded.”
When SSWCA held an election of its board members the next year, they were super quiet about it, and they only let the community know one day before it was set to be held. Conveniently, the elections meeting overlapped with a SOSNA meeting — perhaps purposefully excluding people often active with that RCO.
“The project served as a galvanizing point for a lot of younger, more progressive people to get involved,” Brown said. “People saw it as, how do we have a say in our neighborhood?”
With the recent fallout of the SSWCA, the neighborhood is no longer torn between two active RCOs. It relies on SOSNA to represent everyone.
Perhaps SSWCA’s last impact on the neighborhood was the denial of the 2300 South St. variance four years ago.
“Ultimately the neighborhood spoke,” Nusbaum said, “and they’re getting a by-right use.”
What’s the building actually going to be?
Enough of all that historic drama.
No, there won’t be an Amazon pickup center at 23rd and South. Instead, Nusbaum said there will be two floors of brand new commercial space. That’ll include:
- Two businesses on the first floor, which have yet to be claimed by commercial tenants
- An Amrita yoga studio on the second floor, set to open in Fall 2018
He’s redoing the interior and exterior of the building, while working to maintain its architectural integrity. The disruption to the triangular neighborhood hangout, Nusbaum insists, will be totally worth it.
“It’s going to be beautiful when its finished,” he said. “It’ll be a great addition to the neighborhood, from what was a dormant building for a long time.”