By Thomas J. Walsh
Add another footnote, if not exactly a chapter, to the ongoing saga of Stamper Square.
The Society Hill Civic Association claims that a zoning bill that passed out of City Council committee Wednesday could mean changes in design or scale from the developer by allowing the plan-of-development (POD) to be easily circumvented. Thursday, that bill will get a first reading before the full council, which is acting on the City Planning Commission’s move to grant a one-year extension to Marc Stein for his mixed-use hotel and condo development.
Stein’s detailed plan of development, including a one-year window for development to commence (or “sunset clause”), was approved last summer. Because Stein could not get full approval until the city Historical Commission signed off on it in November, and because there has been virtually no loan availability for commercial real estate since the fall, a one-year reprieve was recommended for Stein by the Planning Commission last month.
The SHCA says the extension is OK by its members. What they’re objecting to is a clause in the bill which they say “would permit the developer to seek potentially significant modifications to last year’s plan.”
Fear & loathing?
In an email to all members of the neighborhood group, the SHCA board wrote: “If the bill becomes law, the developer could seek to build, for instance, as high as 30 stories and/or could include a hotel of a much lower quality; and, to accomplish this would need only an approval from the Planning Commission. This … would put our community at great risk for an inappropriate project.”
“As usual, it’s much ado about nothing,” said Carl Engelke, a consultant for Stein and a member of the Central Delaware Advisory Group. “There are certain folks opposed to this from the start who like to stir up trouble. Anything other than a minor change would have to be opened up to the whole process again.” See testimony
Last week, the SHCA board voted 16-1 to oppose the bill as currently drafted and requested that Councilman Frank DiCicco, who introduced the 2008 legislation allowing for a rezoning of the former NewMarket site, drop certain language. The SHCA also requested delaying the bill.
“The legislation proposed does nothing extraordinary and certainly does not permit a 30-story tower,” said Brian Abernathy, director of policy and public affairs for DiCicco, in an email Tuesday. “To make that claim is simple fear-mongering.”
“What we’re talking about is, what is an amended POD?” said Benita Fair Langsdorf, incoming vice president of the SHCA board and a senior corporate attorney in Center City. “It could mean the height of the building, the scale of the building. It could mean the quality of the hotel – originally we were promised a four-star hotel. It could mean access to open space by the community. Those are all provisions that were in the [POD].”
The bill states that Council wished to “re-enact” the Stamper Square bill from last year “with a new ‘sunset’ provision, and subject to the previously approved Plan of Development or any subsequently approved amended Plan of Development.”
Fair Langsdorf asked, “Why does the bill have to include the term ‘amended’ at all?” She said the SHCA has simply asked DiCicco that those last eight words be dropped.
“Why shouldn’t it read like the original bill, with a new [sunset] provision?” she said. “That would really clarify that you were just referring to the POD as submitted and already approved. By putting in that language, you are permitting the Planning Commission, at its discretion, to approve a different plan.
“The community wants the plan that was approved to be built. We are in favor of this plan, this developer and this quality of the hotel.”
Abernathy explained that the legislation extends the right of the property owner to build the project approved by the POD, and that “some changes may be necessary and it’s important to have a method to allow those changes to occur. An amendment to the POD is the appropriate vehicle for those changes. The amendment process maintains a public process and input.”
Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
“The legislation does not permit ‘significant changes’ but allows for modifications if and only if the Commission believes those modifications are appropriate ‘in scale, density, character and use for the surrounding community,’” said Abernathy. “I don’t fully comprehend SHCA’s opposition and SHCA has not provided us any opportunity to discuss the matter with the Board or the community as a whole.”
Fair Langsdorf said a meeting was not requested by the councilman’s office, but conceded it wasn’t until last Thursday that the SHCA board voted on its protest. Short of DiCicco holding off voting on the bill, she said there was no way of hashing out their differences in the short meantime. See testimony
Again, though, the argument is in the wording. “For some of us, the change of the hotel plan from four-star to three-star would be significant,” said Fair Langsdorf. “Would the Planning Commission consider it ‘significant?’ We’re not trying to fear-monger. As I said to Mr. Abernathy, we really want this project as it was presented to us.”
Engelke said he had no news to report about Stein’s efforts to secure financing for the project, but that “there’s active discussion” going on with potential lenders.
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