Upper Holmesburg apartment expansion approved

For the second time in less than two months, the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment has rejected the Upper Holmesburg Civic Association’s attempt to prevent the expansion of residential apartment rentals at an active industrial property in the neighborhood.

The board voted 3–1 on Dec. 20 in favor of the landlord’s plan to create a first-floor apartment at 8575 Torresdale Ave., a half-acre property that already features three second-floor apartments and at least two auto body and spray painting shops with the potential for two more. ZBA Acting Chairwoman Carol B. Tinari voted yes, as did members Anthony Gallagher and Confesor Plaza. Member Thomas Holloman cast the lone no vote. A fifth ZBA seat is vacant.

The ZBA also ruled in support of the same application on Oct. 25, before City Councilman Bobby Henon wrote to the board requesting reconsideration, citing the civic association’s unanimous opposition. About eight UHCA members attended the zoning hearing.

“The fact that this industrial location is a mixed use is of grave concern,” said UHCA President Stan Cywinski in testimony to the board.

Neighbors are worried that allowing up to four spray painting booths in the building could present a health and safety hazard to its residents.

“You have apartments that are a couple of feet from this (spray booth) vent,” Cywinski said.

Shawn Ward, the attorney for landlord Joseph Smith, testified that auto bodywork and painting are legal within the property’s zoning classification — it’s an I-2 zone — and will be conducted in accordance with applicable regulations.

The zoning code allows “vehicle paint finishing shop” in I-2 properties, as well as a residential use under “caretaker quarters.” The code does not allow for multi-family dwellings like an apartment building, nor does it allow for mixed uses.

Yet, the mixed industrial-residential use has been active at the property for several years since a prior zoning board ruling that legalized it. Indeed, online city records show a series of zoning-related applications for the property in the last decade, as well as more than 100 code violations. Smith has been the landlord throughout that time.

Neighbors say that the site has a long history as an auto repair or body shop. A prior owner lived there, they say. Smith bought the site in 2001.

In 2009, the zoning board issued Smith a variance to legalize three apartments on the second floor while continuing the first-floor industrial use. In 2015, Smith applied to extend the residential use by converting a vacant space on the first floor into a fourth apartment. The zoning board legalized the new apartment at the time but only on condition that spray painting activities cease on the industrial portion of the property.

Ward claims that the zoning board’s chairwoman at the time added the spray-paint ban unilaterally, without a request from any participants in the case. Cywinski believes that the civic association requested the ban, although it has no record of a formal request.

Smith was unwilling to accept the ban because he didn’t want to evict his existing industrial tenants, Ward said, so the landlord attempted to “abandon” the zoning board’s ruling. After the 2015 hearing, he never physically obtained the permit and did not establish the first-floor apartment. Meanwhile, his tenants continued to paint cars.

As a result, the city sued him for violating the zoning board’s ban. As part of a settlement in the case, Smith re-applied for city permits this year and was sent back to the zoning board for a new hearing. In advance of that October ZBA session, Ward presented his client’s case to the UHCA, which voted 28–0 to reject the application.

During last week’s ZBA hearing, Ward argued that the first-floor apartment would be “safely away from the spray painting.”

Tinari, the board chairwoman, noted that were the board to deny the landlord’s application, he would still be allowed to rent the three upstairs apartments while renting the first-floor industrial spaces to auto body repair businesses.

A staff member for the City Planning Commission recommended against the application, stating that the landlord had demonstrated no hardship that would precipitate a zoning variance and that he was “suggesting a use unsafe for residential occupancy.” Yet, the board decided otherwise. The civic association may appeal the ruling to Common Pleas Court.

“We’re disappointed absolutely,” Cywinski said. “We still have options. The fact that City Planning plus one board member voted no tells us maybe we were on the right track and maybe we need a lawyer.” ••