In February 2012, ten concerned Eastwick residents met to discuss two recent home invasions that threatened the quality of life in their quiet Southwest Philadelphia community. From that initial meeting, bimonthly meetings were quickly established where the group began to address a host of community concerns. They contacted agencies responsible for tackling such issues as chronic illegal dumping, insufficient lighting at the local rail station and the need for increased policing in targeted areas. The committee of ten also encouraged their neighbors to get involved and to become more aware of activity in the community that appeared questionable or suspicious.
It was this increased vigilance that prompted one of those concerned residents to question surveying close to his home in late April. Upon doing so, he learned that the area being surveyed was the location of a proposed one hundred million dollar residential development project, as well as potential expansion of the Philadelphia International Airport, all on a 128-acre undeveloped parcel adjacent to John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Further inquiry revealed that, unbeknownst to the community, Philadelphia City Council was poised to approve a rezoning bill on June 12th that would allow the developer to begin the 5-year project to build 722 apartments with parking lots to accommodate 1,034 vehicles—on 35 of the 128 acres, which is currently zoned for single-family homes and also partially designated by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) as a Special Flood Hazard Area.
Stunned that such a massive, high-density project was about to take place on land currently serving as a natural barrier against flooding, the ten concerned residents quickly formed the Eastwick Action Committee (EAC), and joined with the Friends of Heinz Refuge (FOHR) to establish the Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition (EFNC).
EFNC immediately mounted strategies to halt the proposed development until the community could be fully apprised of the developer’s and the City’s plans. EFNC’s goal was to ensure that no development in the targeted location would result in harm to current or future residents or to the habitat at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. EFNC swiftly gained the support of notable environmental groups including Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Keystone Conservation Trust and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club as well as pro bono legal representation by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and Dechert LLC and the support and technical guidance of Penn Urban Studies Program. The community was soon spurred into action, circulating a petition door-to-door, engaging the media with press releases, and mobilizing volunteers for next steps in the process to oppose the rezoning bill at the upcoming City Council hearing.
On June 12, 2012 members and supporters of EFNC provided passionate and fact-based testimony that resulted in City Council tabling the proposed rezoning bill that would have given the developer’s project the green light. On November 20, 2012, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who had previously supported the proposal, pulled the rezoning bill, denying the developer’s request to rezone the 35 acres to build the massive apartment complex. Councilman Johnson stated that the community had spoken “loud and clear” and deserved a say in what happens in their community.
EFNC celebrates this victory with the understanding that the future remains uncertain for the 128-acre parcel. Armed with this knowledge, EFNC has seized the opportunity to launch a comprehensive community education, engagement, and visioning process that will allow residents, business owners and stakeholders, who are open to new growth and development, but in a sustainable and ecologically responsible manner, an opportunity for meaningful and equitable dialogue and participation to ensure that when future development does occur residents are safe, localized and catastrophic flooding impacts are addressed, and environmentally sensitive lands, wildlife, and green spaces are protected. This community assessment report, which reflects the sentiments of 93% (244 of 250 qualifying Eastwick residents) who live in the area immediately adjacent to the 128-acre parcel, is just one step in that direction.