Zoning Hiccup Delays Northern Children's Services Expansion

New zoning code rule forces hearing delay.

With support from both the city councilman and neighborhood civic group, Northern Children's Services thought its Merrick Hall expansion proposal was a slam dunk before the zoning board Wednesday. However, new rules in the city's zoning code forced delayed approval, for at least one week.

The human services facility with a campus at 5301 Ridge Ave. proposed major renovations to its historical (and currently vacant) Merrick Hall to expand housing for young, single mothers. Both the Wissahickon Interested Citizens Association and Office of Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. back the plan.

The proposal calls for a complete building renovation, adding a new elevator tower and welcome annex, creating 15 on-site parking spaces and restoring a wraparound porch. In total, Merrick Hall would have four, two-bedroom apartments and eight dormitory-style bedrooms.

At the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing Wednesday, Chairwoman Lynette Brown-Sow said the group, formerly the Northern Home for Children, lacked specific information on neighborhood impact. Previously a formality with neighborhood consent, the clause is a requirement under the new zoning code, implemented in August.

"One needs to specifically address all of the requirements for them to grant a variance," NCS attorney Ralph Pinkus said later Wednesday. "In the past, they may not have asked for certain things as long as there was no one specifically objecting to it."

The new code could be a trial-and-error for zoning attorneys used to the old rules. Pinkus said he asked colleagues if they yet applied under the new rules and no one had.

In his understanding, the new law better guards against court challenges, which is why the board refused to decide on a variance. If NCS provides all information, it protects the project in the long run.

However, Pinkus felt he could have addressed issues by calling witnesses at the hearing. For example, his architect could testify that the neighborhood's air and lighting won't be impacted by the Merrick expansion.

Because of the delay, Pinkus had to submit a letter more specifically spelling out any impact the project may have on the neighborhood.

"People will learn now, I suppose, that the code changes the way zoning operates, which is good. If (the Department of Licenses and Inspections) refuses you, you can't just go up there and wing it," he said. 

Pinkus submitted the requested information and will try to receive approval Oct. 23 or 24 when the ZBA next meets.


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