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155-unit development by Conrail tracks receives pushback from design committee

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Civic Design Review committee asked the design-development team to try again

A proposal to bring 155 dwellings and commercial space to 2035 E. Lehigh Avenue in Kensington is in the works.
Renderings by KJO Architecture

A large mixed-use development project that would bring 155 units to a four-acre site in Kensington was met with some pushback at the Civic Design Review Tuesday afternoon, with the committee ultimately asking the design-development team to come back for a second time.

The 226,636-square-foot mixed-use project is proposed for 2035 E. Lehigh Avenue, right along the Conrail train tracks. Developer RiverWards Group wants to build 155 units, including a mix of single-family, two-family, and multi-family dwellings ranging in size and price from just under $200,000 to $400,000. There would also be 7,000 square feet of commercial space split up into four buildings. It also calls for 158 parking spaces and 104 bicycle spaces.

The site, however, is currently zoned ICMX (Industrial-Commercial Mixed-Use) and has been since last summer, after years of planning with the neighborhood residents, who pushed for future development that would bring more commercial versus residential use to the area, which has dealt with vacancy, blight, and crime in recent years.

It’s why the Somerset Neighbors for Better Living, a registered community organization (RCO), recently voted against the development, with 33 against and 28 in favor of the project.

The current design proposal would bring four commercial spaces to the project site, but the neighborhood said it’s not enough. “There’s a tremendous opportunity to fill some service gaps here,” said Andrew Goodman of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), whose headquarters are less than a mile away at the Orinoka Civic House.

“This is short-sighted development,” Goodman continued, “and the commercial aspect of the project is woefully small.”

The Civic Design Review committee mostly agreed, though members expressed their understanding of the financial difficulties of bringing retail to this industrial site. Developer Mo Rushdy said that the ratio of residential to commercial space was being dictated by the current state of the real estate market.

In addition, committee chair and architect Nancy Rogo-Trainer said the lack of public space was problematic, despite the design proposal’s call to activate the site’s main frontages along Lehigh and Frankford avenues and incorporate pedestrian-only walkways through the development.

The design proposal calls for a “safe pedestrian-scale environment” along the development’s perimeter as well as a dog park and half-mile walk-run trail. The drawings presented failed to show where the walk-run path would be located, however, though KJO Architecture said it would run along the train tracks and through the development.

“If you’re going to say something exists,” said Rogo-Trainer, “it should be on the drawings.”

The committee also said it was important to further address the corner of Lehigh and Frankford Avenue and make it a more engaging and inviting intersection. This corner also happens to be one of the spots listed on the Vision Zero’s High Injury Network.

Ultimately, Rogo-Trainer said, “the conundrum here is with the basics of the project.”

Architect Cecil Baker added, “It’s an act of courage for the developer” to pick this site. “But what we’re struggling with is, ‘Could it be better?’”

The committee voted to continue the CDR process, which means that the project will have to be presented one more time to the non-binding advisory committee of the Phialdelphia City Planning Commission, which will consider the project at a later date. In addition, the project is scheduled for a Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) meeting on Wednesday, January 10 at 2 p.m.