Mantua residents want to rezone their neighborhood. Does their Councilwoman?
Wednesday, June 8, 2016 By Jake Blumgart
Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church sits at the intersection of Haverford Avenue and 36th Street in West Philadelphia’s Mantua section. On June 2, over 75 people packed into the community room,
with hardly an empty seat in the house. The attendees were there to vote on a plan to rezone the entire neighborhood, transforming much of it from a longstanding designation as multi-family
residential to single-family residential.
The vote wasn’t binding but was intended to demonstrate the neighborhood's preference to District Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell; local community groups have been hoping to convince her of
rezoning’s merits since 2014.
Emotions ran high during the community meeting. For decades Mantua has been a predominantly African American neighborhood, largely comprised of two- or three-story row houses. But as Drexel
University continues growing, students are seeking housing beyond Powelton Village. In recent years, developers have been erecting three-to-four-unit apartment buildings in Mantua, many of them on
the neighborhood’s abundant vacant parcels.
In many modest row house neighborhoods outside Center City, this kind of construction would require the Zoning Board of Adjustments to grant a variance. Not so in Mantua which, like much of the
rest of West Philadelphia, retains outdated zoning. Even as much of the city is being remapped in light of the new zoning code, Mantua still has base zoning established in the 1950s when planners
expected the city to continue growing beyond 2 million residents. About 92 percent of the properties in the neighborhood are zoned RM-1, which allows for relatively small-scale buildings that can be
split into numerous apartments.
“When developers get the property by right, they don’t have to tell the community nothing,” said De'Wayne Drummond, president of the Mantua Civic Association, as he explained the agenda of the
June 2 meeting to the crowd. “That is why things are popping up and we don’t have a clue about it… This doesn’t mean we want development to stop, it just means we want to sit at the table with our
future neighbors. We want to let them know we are a community and that we do have a voice.”
Mantua is a small neighborhood bounded by 40th Street to the west, Spring Garden to the south, with railroad tracks and the Schuylkill River to the north and east. The two Census tracts that
largely comprise the area have experienced a 66.8 percent decrease in population between 1960 and 2013.
Today about 5,594 people live in this sliver of West Philadelphia, but the neighborhood remains very active and boasts many community groups. Three of these, the Mantua Civic Association, the Mt.
Vernon Manor CDC, and the Mantua Area Improvement Committee are championing the rezoning effort. They have been pressing their case for a year and a half.
The entire proposal hinges on Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. The Philadelphia City Planning Commission has drawn up legislation that would dramatically change how Mantua is zoned, as specified by
the demands of the community groups. City Council must pass legislation in order to rezone the neighborhood. The neighborhood is in Blackwell’s district, and according to the customs of the
legislative body, she must be the one to introduce the bill.
“We brought it to you [Blackwell] assuming you would know what to do, because everyone believes that she is the most powerful woman in the city,” says Michael Thorpe, executive director of Mt.
Vernon Manor CDC in an interview with PlanPhilly. “You bring it to her and you expect her to advance it, to do what it is that you want done. But you have to help, work with her, tell her what it is
you want to do. And then ask her to be accountable. That’s what this process is now.”
At a late April meeting held to demonstrate neighborhood support for the remapping, Councilwoman Blackwell appeared concerned about several issues raised by constituents. Some in the crowd feared
the remapping would impede their ability to subdivide their homes. Blackwell assured them it wouldn’t, but planning commission representatives present at the meeting disagreed. The councilwoman
expressed reservations about the “downsides” of rezoning, and left the meeting without giving assent to the plan. She did promise to do what the community desired, but left before a hand vote showed
unanimous consent for it.
“I believe at that time there wasn’t a yes but there wasn’t a no,” says Drummond in an interview with PlanPhilly. But the community groups decided that an educational campaign was needed to
ensure that there wouldn’t be any confusion the next time Blackwell came out.
Last Thursday’s meeting took place as part of the effort to show a united front in support of the remapping.