Bass zoning bill would protect historic G-town homes

by Carla Robinson
Posted 6/1/23

Three years after Germantown neighbors organized to influence the city’s zoning code to save their historic properties, City Councilmember Cindy Bass introduced their proposed bill to City Council.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Bass zoning bill would protect historic G-town homes


Three years after a group of Germantown neighbors organized to influence the city’s zoning code to save their historic properties from potentially being destroyed by development, City Councilmember Cindy Bass introduced their proposed bill to City Council last week. 

The bill, which Bass introduced in the Rules Committee on May 25, would amend the existing code for sections of Germantown bounded by Johnson Street, Morton Street, Tulpehocken Street, the SEPTA Chestnut Hill East Line, Haines Street, Germantown Avenue, Rittenhouse Street, McCallum Street, Harvey Street, Washington Lane, and Cherokee Street. The bill was developed by neighbors who conducted a detailed analysis of about 1,000 properties in the area.

Bass, who just returned to the city from a trip outside the country after winning a hard-fought campaign to keep the Democratic nomination for her seat on City Council, did not respond to a request for comment. 

In a previous statement, however, Bass said it took years to submit the proposed overlay because the original plan was not acceptable to city planners.

“Those properties appeared to be 90% spot-zoned and City Planning advised me that your suggestions would be impossible to implement,” she said. 

Neighbors, however, said they were thrilled. 

“We’re very appreciative that she followed through, as she promised she would,” said Suzanne Ponsen, president of West Central Germantown Neighbors. “We had about 150 people turn out for our annual Memorial Day potluck picnic on Monday, and we made a point of thanking her, and thanking all the members who worked so hard to do all this research and put it together. Getting this introduced is really something to celebrate.”

According to Ponsen, the overlay was needed to correct some critical inaccuracies in the existing code. 

Their section of Germantown – bounded by Washington Lane and Chelten Avenue to the East and West, and Germantown Avenue and the R8 Septa rail line to the North and South – is characterized by grand mansions built by the city’s wealthy industrialists around the turn of the century. Most – according to Ponsen about 80 percent of them – are in good physical shape and are now being used as apartments. 

“Many of them had been zoned as attached houses, which was incorrect, and would have allowed a developer to tear them down and replace them with five or six townhouses,” Ponsen said. 

The zoning overlay is also good news for those who are concerned about affordable housing, Ponsen said, as the apartments they house are typically more affordable than new units now being built. 

“Over the years, we’ve allowed variances for these big mansions to be turned into apartments,” Ponsen said. “From the outside, they’re still grand houses that create the look and the feel of our neighborhood, which is why people want to move to Germantown in the first place. And on the inside, they have apartments which are unique, charming and often more much more affordable than cookie-cutter units that are now going up all over the place.”

The new bill would also give neighbors a bit more say over what happens to commercial properties along Germantown Avenue, Ponsen said. 

Currently, most of those are zoned CMX 2.5 or CMX 3, which allows for taller buildings with much more density than what the historic buildings offer – all with minimal parking requirements. The amended zoning would bring those designations down to CMX 2, which does not allow such tall and dense buildings by right. 

“That means there will be less of an incentive to tear down a building that may not be historically registered but is still perfectly charming and contributes to the overall fabric of the neighborhood,” Ponsen said. “It also gives the community a little more opportunity to negotiate with developers.”