Stamper Square project gets another lease on life

April 21, 2009

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

Somewhat lost in the shuffle of Tuesday’s jam-packed monthly meeting of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission was a renewal of the one-year sunset clause placed on the plan of development for the controversial Stamper Square mixed-use development project, approved by the Commission and City Council last year.

The sun set officially on developer Marc Stein’s project on Headhouse Square near South Street on April 16, but was given a reprieve because of the economy. This time, Stein gets a sunset clause that expires June 30, 2010, unless a building permit has been issued or the Planning Commission grants another extension (“upon a determination by the Commission that the applicant is making substantial progress toward completion”).

The staff recommended approving the change based on the wretched economy and the havoc it has played on developers. Having approved several “plans of development” in connection with legislated zoning changes over the last six months, more than a few projects given the green light by the Planning Commission have gone nowhere. Because of the banking crisis and credit freeze, developers cannot get financing, much less proceed with construction within the one-year period established by City Council.

The move is called a “re-enacting” of a zoning approved May 14, 2008, amending the city’s designation of the area generally bounded by Front, Lombard, Second, and Pine streets, to accommodate the project.

Rosanne Loesch, a board member of the Society Hill Civic Association and its incoming president, objected to the decision.

“This is coming as a surprise to me,” said Loesch, who was among the SHCA members opposed to the 2008 ordinance, and said there was not enough notice given by the Commission that an extension was being considered. “I don’t think we were able to engage our community at all.”

Commissioner Joe Syrnick, though, shrugged, saying the project “made sense to me then, and it makes sense to me now.”

The recommendation to extend the sunset clause was then approved.

Members and officers of the SHCA were bitterly split on Stamper Square throughout 2008, but Stein was given re-zoning approval for his 1.5-acre property last May by Council. He said at the time that he was not concerned about the global credit crunch, which then was just starting its meltdown in the wake of the collapse of investment bank Bear Stearns. Since then, of course, many things have shifted for a business based almost entirely on corporate finance.

Though the source of his loans were never disclosed, Stein had a 25-year deal in place with Starwood Resorts to operate his planned 150-room boutique hotel, a deal that was said to expire if ground had not been broken by the end of 2008.

“They’re still working with us,” Stein said, when reached by PlanPhilly Tuesday evening. “In this economy, everybody understands what’s going on. We’re getting really close.”

Stein said he has two separate alternative scenarios to traditional financing in the works, but said he could not elaborate. “You have to have a really good project, and we do. And the city really needs development. We really need an economic driver. You can’t put any more levels of review on this process than we had. We had more than 50 meetings.”

In addition to the hotel, 77 condominiums are planned, with high-end retail and restaurant plans in the mix.

“Essentially we really didn’t get our last approval until November, with the Historical Commission, so it wasn’t like it was really a year anyway,” Stein said.

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