Society Hill kills Stamper Square

Feb. 27
Previous coverage
 

By Matt Blanchard
For PlanPhilly

Society Hill’s civic association has rejected the 15-story hotel and condominium project called Stamper Square. The vote was incredibly contentious and could not have been closer.

After three hours of lawyerly arguments, points of order, and impassioned appeals to principle, the board came down 12 to 12, which, according to Robert’s Rules of Order, means the heavy effort by some on the board to approve Stamper Square had failed. The meeting then broke up suddenly, with scattered shouting and recriminations.

If Wednesday night revealed a troubling split among community leaders, it was also better than cable. As one resident quipped: “Who needs the Walnut Street Theater when you’ve got drama like this?”

The evening’s climax came at the vote tally itself. Normally a quick procedure, it raged back and forth for 35 minutes as the two sides battled to disqualify their opponents from voting.

“I am absolutely offended by your zealotry!” exclaimed Stamper supporter Jim Moss when opponents challenged the proxy vote of an absent board member.

But the victory – and victory seemed to matter deeply Wednesday night – went to lawyer and board member Paul Boni, who appeared to strike a killing blow to the Stamper Square approval with one well-aimed Google search.

But first, some background.

The latest – and perhaps final – designs for Stamper Square envision a 150-room boutique hotel, run by Starwood Resorts as part of their “Luxury Collection” line, as well as 77 condominium units priced above $1 million apiece. Both uses, along with a restaurant and spa, would be housed in two towers on the vacant NewMarket site, just east of Headhouse Square. After 10 months of negotiations with Bridgeman Development, it is the building’s 15-story height that brought the matter to a crisis on Wednesday night.

Opponents say the building is simply too tall for the historic “urban village” of Society Hill.  In response, Bridgeman has dropped the height of their proposal from 18 stories to 15. But last week they said 15 was their “final offer” and threatened to walk away unless civic leaders come to heel.

Is Bridgeman bluffing?

Supporters of the project believe they’re not. They say enforcing the area’s 60-foot height limit (Stamper would scrape 166) will only kill a very worthy project and leave Society Hill staring at the empty hole of NewMarket for another 10 years.

“I’m satisfied that this is as much as this developer will give, given the economic environment,” supporter Moss said of the 15-story plan. “We’re taking a gamble if we reject this project, and it’s a gamble I don’t want to take.”

It was then Boni played his Google card. A simple search had turned up an interview with Bridgeman principle Ryan Roberts from March 2007. In it, Roberts predicts that Stamper Square is “likely to be no taller” than 11 stories. To Boni, that meant it was time for the board to call Bridgeman’s bluff:

“The developer himself told the press this thing would be 11 stories,” Boni told the board. “I see no reason to think that if we bargain hard, they’ll walk away… It comes down to your confidence, in your heart and in your head, that he’s truly at his final offer and cannot come down.”

By the thinnest possible margin, the board went with Boni. And after it was over, he was approached by a friend from the audience.

“How’d it look from the stands?” Boni asked.

“Pretty ugly,” she joked.

But whether Wednesday night’s decision will truly be regarded as ugly now depends on Bridgeman. In the coming days, the Philadelphia development firm, who all sides agree is offering Society Hill a mostly fantastic opportunity, will through their actions provide an answer to the only question that matters now:

Were they bluffing?

Link to Roberts Interview: http://www.globest.com/news/877_877/philadelphia/159452-1.html

Contact the reporter at blanchard.matt@gmail.com

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.