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Fear & Zoning At Mt. Sinai: A One Act Play

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Last night at the Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, Gagar Lakhmna, a local developer, presented his plan for the conversion of the vacant Mt. Sinai Hospital complex (at 4th and Reed) into 39 townhomes and 137 apartments. Here, the meeting is summarized (with a few creative liberties: the meeting may not actually have erupted into parking chants) in the style of a one act play. A less imaginative (and more faithful) recap is available at Pennsporter.

Lights up on a church meeting hall set with eight tables and fifty or so folding chairs, facing a screen and projector. The room, though large, is packed with members of THE CHORUS, some of whom are standing at the periphery of the seating area, their number too large to be adequately seated. Beside the projector, THE PROJECT MANAGER stands, as THE DEVELOPER and THE ARCHITECT talk in low tones to one another. THE FACILITATOR sits off to the side.

THE FACILITATOR: Welcome! We'll get started in just a moment. Come in from the cold, have a seat! If I could just remind everyone to please be civil. Let's wait until after the presentation is over to ask questions and give comments. Okay, let's get started.
THE PROJECT MANAGER: We're very excited to announce our plans for the Mt. Sinai hospital. We're approaching it very much as a question of urban repair: do you see these empty spaces? We'll call them voids. Yes, voids [directs attention of THE CHORUS toward screen, where aerial view of site is displayed] ...wouldn't it be lovely if they were activated? Reintegrated? Made part of the neighborhood again?
[THE CHORUS rumbles assent and dissent: wisps of conversation ripple through the crowd: a word beginning with "p" and ending in "ing" is heard in several places across the audience, barely a whisper]
You'll see, as we go on, that we've thought about the neighborhood. Yes. And we've thought about how to reactivate this site: such a shame, vacant so long, since '97, well, I'm sure you know. I'm sure you all know, some areas of the site are badly blighted. Yet others seem to be holding up well.
[THE CHORUS rumbles again, somewhat louder. That word, what is it? P-p-parrr...paarking? Is it parking? Is that what you hear?]
The process we're looking at here won't take too long. Well of course we'll need zoning. The site is zoned as a single family home. How silly! Well it is. And we'll be doing...have you heard of a process called Civic Design Review. It's new. You may not have heard of it. CDR. Early January. And the zoning meeting? Late February. Maybe Mid-February. We'll see.
[The word 'parking' rings out scattershot across THE CHORUS]
So here's the project [The screen changes to a lego block-like image of the potential future, the aforementioned voids at the edges of the property filled in by charming, colorful masses. They are the townhomes to be. To maybe be.] We'll be building 39 townhomes at the edges of the property, and we'll rehab the interior hospital building to put in about 198 units. And we'll have a retail space, you see it will really activate the street, invigorate it and...
CHORUS MEMBER A: Will there be a garage? Where will all these people park?
THE PROJECT MANAGER: We'll have about 137 parking spaces. The townhomes have garages. They're rear-loaded.
CHORUS MEMBER B: That's an awful lot of density for this area. An awful lot.
CHORUS MEMBER C: How tall will the townhomes be?
THE PROJECT MANAGER: Four stories. About 42 feet tall. We'll need a variance.
CHORUS MEMBER A: Will they have roofdecks? On top of the fourth story?
THE PROJECT MANAGER: Yes, there will be roofdecks.
CHORUS MEMBER C: What about privacy? The people across the street they won't...the people on the roofdecks will be able to see...
THE PROJECT MANAGER: Well, you see at this site across the street we have a five story building, and...
CHORUS MEMBER B: But the homes across the street are two stories.
THE FACILITATOR: If we could just hold our questions until the end...I'm sure they'll answer many of these questions and if we could just...
THE ARCHITECT: Maybe now's a good time for me to jump in? [THE PROJECT MANAGER nods assent] Yes, there will be roofdecks. [The slide changes to a rendering of a contemporary style row of townhomes] The materials we're looking to use here, on the front, we'll be using brick, stucco, and metal panels. The garages-- you can see here, they're rear loaded. You can see from the back here [The slide changes, displaying a rendering of the back of the townhomes, a single color] we'll be using plain stucco on the back because we want to put our money in the front.
CHORUS MEMBER D: Is the aesthetic set in stone? These homes look very much like what you see in Northern Liberties. Very cookie-cutter. I'm just wondering if these homes could be made to fit in with the historic character of the neighborhood? The historic character of the hospital?
THE DEVELOPER: [Stands abruptly] We've thought about that. But I--
THE PROJECT MANAGER: [To the developer] Maybe you should introduce yourself?
THE DEVELOPER: My name is Gagar Lakhmna. I'm a local developer. I live in Philly, I'm raising two kids here. I've completed multiple projects throughout the city, spanning several years. I'm very excited and confident about this project. As to the question of the design, I've developed projects elsewhere and I have been told...the Historic Commission has told me, 'you're not building a historical building, don't try to make it look that way.' We do have two design plans, a contemporary plan, and a more traditional...
CHORUS MEMBER A: Will this be the largest project you've ever developed?
THE DEVELOPER: In terms of size, yes, but not in terms of value.
CHORUS MEMBER B: Will these apartments, in the center be rentals? If they're rentals, there will be moving trucks up and down the street. And parking. How many parking spots will there be? Enough? Will there be enough parking?
CHORUS MEMBER D: The townhome owners, they'll have more than one car, won't they? Can they park their second car in front of their garages?
THE PROJECT MANAGER: We're not planning apron parking...
CHORUS MEMBER A: Yeah, I have a question. How much money are you planning to make on this deal? Because after you've gone on your merry way, we'll be left here, with no parking. Where will we park? My friend, do you know how far away we have to park already? Do you?
CHORUS MEMBER A: How big will the retail space be? Do you know what kind of business you'll be putting in there?
THE DEVELOPER: About the parking, that's the painful part of development. The retail space will be about 2500 sq ft. We're talking to a...restarauntuer we know. I think you'll be's a big name.
THE DEVELOPER: Actually, it's Jose Garces.
CHORUS MEMBER D: You need PARKING for that!
CHORUS MEMBER B: Will there be any sustainable features? What will you do about the asbestos in the hospital? Will there be any affordable units? Section 8?
THE DEVELOPER: We'll address the asbestos as city law stipulates. We'll bring inn an environmental manager. This is a market rate project. We won't be accepting Section 8.
CHORUS MEMBER A: Will 137 parking spots really be enough? What if people bring 2, 3, 4 cars?
THE DEVELOPER: We're providing parking for about 50% of the units which is more than zoning requires for similar projects in correctly zoned areas. This zoning here doesn't require any parking because it's zoned single family.
THE FACILITATOR: I'd just like to remind everyone to be civil and...
THE CHORUS: [Working to a crescendo] PARKING. PARKING. PARKING!
[Lights fade and dim as CHORUS continues to chant]
· Mount Sinai Plan Reveals Mix of Town Homes and Apartments [Pennsporter]