Kensington: Developer Seeks to Build Multiuse Property on American Street

Michael Frechette, a developer and artist, has proposed building an artist’s studio with apartments above it at 1535-37 American St. The South Kensington Community Partners (SKCP) Planning and Zoning Committee approved his proposed construction at its meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 24, though final approval for the project is still needed from City authorities. 

The proposed construction was described by members of the committee as a more “human-scale” development when compared to other projects proposed to the committee. 

The committee also granted its support for a zoning variance for the commercially-zoned property Frechette owns next door at 1539, which would allow an elderly couple to continue renting an apartment there. 

Zoning notice posted on the fence of the property at 1535-37 where the new building will be built.

Many of Philadelphia’s citywide operations have been delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but that has not stopped developers from building properties, which has kept local planning and zoning committees busy. 

“These meetings give people a chance to talk about their concerns and their desires for the neighborhood,” SKCP Chairman Marco Gorini said. 

Frechette’s proposal for the lot at 1535-37 American St. is a mixed-use residential development, featuring apartments on the second and third floors, as well as an artist studio for his own personal use on the first floor. 

“I need a shop space,” Frechette said. “I need a space where I can keep my tools and work.” 

He has owned residential properties in Philadelphia for over two decades, but his passion has always been his art. Now that he has the opportunity to design this new building on American Street, he is prioritizing his personal art studio on the first floor, he said. 

The proposed building will have three apartments above the shop. 

“There could have been four (apartments), but I prefer higher ceilings,” Frechette said.

 The proposed blueprint for the building has 12-foot ceilings on the first two floors and 16-foot ceilings on the top floor. 

The blueprint for the building at 1535-37 American St. that was presented to SKCP on Wednesday, February 24.

“I hope to make money off of this, but that’s not the sole reason why I am doing this,” Frechette said. 

Clementa Amazan, the lawyer working with Frechette, also presented applications for a zoning variance for a property next door, noting a situation that complicated the variance. An elderly couple has been living in an apartment inside 1539 American St., but since the building is zoned commercial, their residence is technically illegal. If Frechette were to follow through with construction without a variance, he would have to evict the people who had been living there before he purchased the property. 

The front of 1539 American St. Philadelphia, Pa. (Nemec/PN)

“We do not want to have to evict someone who has already been living in the space for five-plus years,” Amazan said. 

The committee unanimously supported a zoning variance proposal allowing the couple to stay in the property. 

Frechette has tried to be an understanding landlord during the pandemic. 

“I lowered the rent to half during the start of the pandemic until they told me they were able to pay again,” Frechette said. 

The meeting was rather quick. Amazan took about 20 minutes to present the proposed changes to the zoning for 1539 American St. and the new property at 1535-37 American St. 

After the presentation, members of SKCP asked Amazan questions about the property.

“Will the artisan space be open to the public?” one committee member asked.

It will not be, however. 

“Probably a half a dozen people will have keys to it, if they need to use my cable saw or something,” Frechette said.  

The designated artist and artisan spaces on the development’s first floor impressed people in the meeting. The committee did not have any negative comments about the property and said they really liked the design of the new building, especially the tall ceilings and loft in the back. 

Though SKCP supported the project, the Zoning Board of Adjustment has final say over whether a developer can follow through with a project and approves proposed zoning changes. Frechette and Amazan presented the SKCP’s support for the project at a meeting held on March 17. ZBA granted Frechette’s variance request. 

“They are generally very pro-development at the ZBA,” Gorini said. “It will take a lot for them to say no to a large project.” 

Positive feedback and support from SKCP would help Frechette make his casel, Amazan said.

“We showed that we had community support for the project, and I believe we got a unanimous vote in favor of the project,” Amazan said after presenting the project to the ZBA.

Registered Community Organizations like the SKCP hold regular public meetings to give the neighbors of the surrounding community the opportunity to listen to developers’ proposals and provide feedback. Meetings like these are generally routine for members of the SKCP, but COVID-19 has meant getting used to new ways of doing things. 

Gorini has been a member of the planning and zoning committee for five years now and said online meetings are simply “not the same” as in-person meetings.  

SKCP took a five month hiatus when the COVID-19 pandemic started affecting the surrounding area last March. After talking to other local organizations that had made the transition to virtual, SKCP moved their meetings online too. 

Gorini mentioned that, prior to the pandemic, typically between 20 and 50 people would attend the monthly meetings, but now that they are virtual, the numbers are lower and many of the attendees have their cameras off.

“They look pretty different right now, but the basic structure is the same,” Gorini said.

There is a lack of neighborhood cohesion that previously could be seen during in-person, he said.

“Zoom is not a good replacement,” Gorini said. “It is kind of isolated, and it’s harder to get a real conversation going, so we are looking forward to returning to in-person meetings.” 

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