Far Northeast residents showed up in force last week to oppose a plan for a 520-unit apartment complex near Philadelphia Mills Mall.
City Councilman Brian O’Neill, who also expressed fierce resistance to the proposal, said the issue represents “probably the most serious zoning case I’ve had in 39 years” in office. He vowed to fight the project.
The emergency meeting of the Millbrook Civic Association, held at a packed Calvary Athletic Association gym on Jan. 22, was extremely combative as developer Michael Gordon and his group tried to defend the plan in front of a hostile crowd.
In the end, all of the more than 70 neighborhood residents in attendance voted to oppose granting a variance for the project at 4301 Woodhaven Road.
After the meeting, Gordon’s attorney Hercules Grigos told the Northeast Times that the development group plans to explore its options moving forward. The case is scheduled to be heard by the Zoning Board of Adjustment on Wednesday, Feb. 20.
“Our goal was to get input from the community,” Grigos said. “We’ll reevaluate and determine where we want to go.”
Gordon’s proposal is to build five apartment buildings, a clubhouse and a pool on a vacant 14.5-acre strip of land east of the mall on the border with Bensalem. Each residence would be five stories and contain a mix of one-bedroom, two-bedroom and studio apartments.
The project would also include 599 parking spots and the construction of a new street and sidewalk.
“It’s a 21st-century high-end apartment building,” architect Seth Shapiro said during a presentation at the meeting. “This is more typical of what we’re doing all over the city and the suburbs.”
The property is currently zoned for single-family homes, but the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s 2035 plan calls for the site to change to residential multi-family use, Shapiro said.
O’Neill dismissed the 2035 plan and said residents can fight to keep the current zoning designation.
“It’s a planning document,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything. Until the zoning changes, that’s the way it is.”
Neighbors questioned whether the complex would include subsidized housing and worried the project would attract what they consider to be undesirable tenants. Gordon responded by saying the proposal is for a luxury development, with one-bedroom units going for $1,200 a month.
“Anybody that had the time to look could see I don’t rent to trash,” Gordon said. “I don’t build crap.”
Gordon, who grew up in Mayfair, pointed to the Rita Grace Manor apartments, 9181 Academy Road, which he rebuilt after a fire in 2015 as an example. His firm, M&M Management, also operates seven other apartment complexes in the Northeast, according to the company’s website.
Residents at the meeting also raised concerns about increased traffic from the proposed complex. Many said Woodhaven Road, Knights Road and other streets in the area cannot handle 500 more units.
O’Neill warned that the project’s tenants would be forced to park their second car on neighborhood streets since the plan does not include two spaces for every unit.
Moreover, the councilman said the area is inundated with apartment complexes built in the 1960s and 1970s. Any more would hurt the neighborhood, O’Neill claimed.
“This isn’t about how many units, and don’t let it become about how many units,” he said. “This is about apartments versus homes.”
O’Neill said the site should be reserved for single homes or senior housing. Some residents suggested the property should be left alone or kept as a natural area.
Gordon said it’s a shame the Northeast isn’t getting involved in a city-wide property boom.
“Every other area of the city is now being developed,” he said. “Values are going through the roof.”
O’Neill said he will be working with local state representatives, including Mike Driscoll, who also attended the meeting, to hire a lawyer to represent the civic association at zoning hearings. Driscoll told the Times he intends to stand behind neighbors in opposition to the plan. ••