In Philadelphia, city councilman Kenyatta Johnson has pushed for the city to ban balconies and bay windows from new apartments and condos, saying that they are a “symbol of gentrification” that causes anxiety, as he criticizes the new housing developments being built in the city.
Johnson, who represents much of South Philadelphia, introduced a bill during City Council’s May 23 session that would ban balconies and bay windows across Point Breeze and Grays Ferry. The two architectural features would still be allowed outside of those two neighborhoods, but according to the bill, the distance from which they can project from a building would continue to be regulated.
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Johnson’s legislation comes amid unprecedented change in his district, which stretches from the fast-gentrifying neighborhoods of Graduate Hospital and Point Breeze, to areas farther south and west, including the Navy Yard and Eastwick. Thousands of new rowhouses have been built, adding taller and showier structures to older and modest rowhouse blocks. The boxy, bump-out bay windows that Johnson aims to legislate have become a well-known architectural feature of Philadelphia’s construction boom, just as aluminum siding and roof decks have.
For some homeowners in the market for newly constructed homes, balconies and bump-out bay windows offer two things that a traditional rowhouse can’t: additional space and light.Other people see these architectural features as a defining symbol of gentrification — bringing with it anxieties about cost-of-living increases and displacement. And yet others worry that the features disrupt the appearance and character of older blocks.
Bay windows “are absolutely reflective of the change that has happened in that [area] in the last 15 years or so,” said Patrick Grossi, advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. “They are an icon of that change, and maybe for a lot of people, they are an icon of unwelcome change.”
Historically known for their curved outward projection, bay windows have long been a defining characteristic of Philadelphia architecture, often appearing in West Philadelphia Victorians, for example, or South Philadelphia rowhouses. (In the latter neighborhood, bay windows are well-known for their holiday displays.) Johnson’s legislation is instead more likely targeted at the large, boxy bay windows that have appeared citywide in recent years, jutting out from the sides of new rowhouses built in South Philadelphia, the River Wards, West Philadelphia, and elsewhere.
Naturally, it appears as though Councilman Johnson himself has been using his position to profit from new housing and help his friends land sweetheart deals:
Yet Johnson’s time as a councilman has been plagued by periodic scandal, and his opponents have accused him of abusing his political clout in a way that conflicts with his promises to keep his district affordable. In 2016, a jury awarded Feibush, the Point Breeze developer, $34,000 in a civil case that accused Johnson of blocking Feibush’s attempts to buy two city-owned lots after he announced plans to run against Johnson in 2015. And multiple Inquirer investigations have found that Johnson steered the sales of city-owned lots to a friend, who, despite promising to build affordable housing on some of the lots, ended up pricing the houses at $400,000 and more.
Councilman Kenyatta Johnson has also been sued multiple times by a developer and was the subject of an FBI investigation that also involved a union head and one of his fellow council members. Philly Mag reports:
On January 30th, the same day that the U.S. Department of Justice announced a sprawling indictment against electricians union head John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty and Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon, among others, Northern Liberties attorney Jordan Rushie says he got an intriguing phone call. On the other end of the line was was an FBI special agent named R.J. Haag.
Rushie says that Haag asked him if he would be willing to share files relating to a lawsuit that Rushie had filed against City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson on behalf of Bag of Holdings, a company owned by developer Mike Pollack, who has partnered with Ori Feibush on many Point Breeze properties.
We asked Rushie if he had any idea why the FBI was making these inquiries, and he said that the FBI agent made it quite clear.
“He told me that the FBI is actively investigating Kenyatta Johnson,” remembers Rushie.
In the suit, which was unsuccessful, Pollack claimed that Johnson had been “trying to sell city-owned properties to political insiders and demanding purchasers use his preferred developers.”
Within a few hours of Haag’s phone call to Rushie about the Pollack suit, the FBI agent sent him an email, which Philly Mag has reviewed.
“Thank you for agreeing to provide the Government with records pertaining to Bag Of Holdings’ interest in the properties …” wrote Haag. “We will gladly take whatever files you deem potentially relevant to our investigation.”
In the email, Haag instructed Rushie to send the files to the attention of FBI agent Robert McManigal, who was one of the investigators involved in convicting Chaka Fattah, Jr., son of the disgraced (and also-convicted) United States congressman. Contacted by Philly Mag, Haag declined to confirm the existence of an investigation of Johnson; McManigal did not respond to a request for comment.
Pollack’s claims are similar to the ones made by Feibush in his own lawsuits against Johnson.
In Feibush’s first suit, which Feibush filed while he was running against Johnson for his Council seat, he claimed that Johnson had used what’s known as councilmanic prerogative to block Feibush from buying certain properties in an act of political retaliation.
Feibush lost the election but eventually won the suit.
Feibush later sued Johnson again over a related matter, but that case was dismissed after a judge ruled that Johnson was protected by a legal concept called “qualified immunity” that shields government officials from civil liability in some circumstances.
Meanwhile, the “blame whitey” ban on balconies and bay windows passed out of committee and is now on the mayor’s desk, waiting to be signed into law. Johnson added “I call them pop-out windows, that’s where we have these monstrosity developments with windows with aluminum siding that are green or orange or blue, and they don’t fit on these blocks that are all red-brick rowhouses.”