City Council approves zoning for Old City hotel honky tonk

City Council has made wayfor a hotel with a controversial restaurant and entertainment venue — reportedly a Toby Keith bar, grill and honky tonk — to be built in Old City.

Developer Robert Ambrosi of Arc Propertiessaid interior demolition at the former factory at 4th and Race streets will begin soon and that he hopes to begin construction this fall.

“I feel wonderful,” he said in a phone interview after the decision.But there are some Old City residents who do not.

Neighborhood residents embraced the hotel portion of the project, but many fought against permission for the bar and entertainment venue in the zoning legislation that passed council Thursday.Some didn’t want a venue under any circumstances and some thought Ambrosi should have to get permission from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which would give residents a chance to appeal any decision.

The bottom line: They don’t want anything resembling a night club.

But Ambrrosi has said he would never allow such a thing, because it would harm the hotel, and that is the keystone of his development.

Some critics aren’t content with Ambrosi’s assurances. Others, including Old City Civic Association zoning committee co-chair Joe Schiavo, are concerned about what could replace the proposed venue if it should fail, considering zoning that specifically allows for food, alcohol and live music applies to the site.

But Thursday, there was another issue upsetting residents – the fact they were not given notice that the bill would be called up for a vote at this meeting.

“There were community members that wanted to testify when it was voted on,” Schiavo said. “I think those folks are going to feel a little disenfranchised by lack of notice.”

Old City Civic and Ambrosi have been in talks about the project for more than two years but were unable to finalize a community agreement containing provisions and restrictions on the project separate from what is contained in the legislation. The zoning bill introduced by First District Councilman Frank DiCicco passed out of council’s rules committee in November and has been on the final approval agenda awaiting a full-council vote for months. DiCicco had been holding the bill to give time for Ambrosi and residents to sign the agreement. In late March, he told PlanPhilly that he could not wait much longer.

Schiavo said residents knew the vote was coming soon, but they still expected to be notified before it happened. “I can’t call them and say leave your place of business right now. They need time to make arrangements to attend a council meeting,” he said.

Schiavo also said that he had told DiCicco late last month that Old City Civic would not be able to sign the agreement. One Old City organization, the Old City Residents Coalition, a group that represents condo owners, “is very much opposed to the scale of the bar/restaurant/entertainment venue,” Schiavo said. Ambrosi has said the development can’t happen without it, Schiavo said, but Old City Civic didn’t feel it could sign any agreement that included the venue as planned since a significant number of people it represents were opposed.

Schiavo said he recommended that DiCicco sign any agreement that was reached on behalf of Old City, but that OCC was continuing to take part in the negotiations.

But an agreement was reached and it was signed by another community organization, the Old City District, which is managed by a 19-member board of directors drawn from area commercial property owners, business people and civic organizations and strives to improve the safety, cleanliness and economics of the neighborhood. One board member, Neff Associates owner David Neff, said that the proposed development would bring life to the long-dead corner of Race and 4th streets. “Having that giant footprint in an important anchor slot in Old City unoccupied certainly doesn’t lend itself well to the vibrancy and energy in Old City,” he said. Neff expressed similar sentiments in an interview in February. But as of this month, he has been hired by Ambrosi to help brand the project, he said.

Schiavo said Old City Civic still had concerns about the most recent draft of the agreement that he saw. In fact, items that OCC thought had been resolved a long time ago were back in play in that draft.

While OCC thought the height of the hotel was established at 145 feet, the draft agreement called for another 10 feet, Schiavo said.

Months ago, after heated debate, DiCicco removed from the zoning bill a provision that would have allowed for an electronic sign on the side of the building. “I fear this is making way for a rooftop sign,” Schiavo said of the additional height.

The draft also included a third liquor license, in addition to the one for the bar in the restaurant/entertainment venue and the bar in the hotel. “We thought that was off the table,” Schiavo said.

Ambrosi said the additional height – which he characterized as about five feet – was needed only for the elevator shaft, which needed to be higher than was originally thought. “The hotel itself, it has not exceeded the limit we have,” he said.

“I have no plan at the moment of putting a sign on top of the building,” he said. “I’m not ruling it out in the future, but at the moment, I have no plan for it.”

Schiavo had heard that the third liquor license had been pulled from the agreement by DiCicco. Ambrosi said he has been out of town this week, and so he hasn’t seen the agreement lately. But the purpose of that third license is to allow a gourmet food store he is in negotiations with to serve champagne or wine to its customers, or allow them to taste a liquor, he said. “We’re talking about a counter that is 10-feet long,” he said. “It’s a nice environment while waiting for your pork chops to be cut.”

Ambrosi’s team would have to go to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to get that license, he said, and it would seek a restricted license that would allow alcohol to be served only as part of a gourmet food store – it could never be transferred to another use, and it could only operate when the store is open, he said.

Ambrosi said he and his team have always looked at the hotel project as two projects in one. The hotel, a Starwood Aloft property, and its ground floor restaurant/entertainment venue will have all entrances on 5th Street, toward Independence National Historical Park, he said. Because there’s not a lot happening on that corner now, “it needs to be a destination.” he said.

The other more “passive” uses will face 4th Street, Ambrosi said, and this is the more residential area. This part of the project includes a small number of residences, the gourmet food store, and possibly a spa, he said. “We have no interest in any bars on 4th.”

Some residents have said that since the ground-floor space on 4th is not meant to serve just hotel patrons, but attract tourists, people will be spilling out into the neighborhood in the wee hours, and they don’t think keeping the doors on 5th Street will solve the problem.

DiCicco, who could not be reached for comment for this article, has said in the past that the entertainment venue/restaurant at the bottom of the hotel would be a Toby Keith establishment. Community members involved in talks have said the same.

Ambrosi, also the developer of 10 Rittenhouse Square, said he couldn’t say whether the group he is in the final stages of talks with involves Toby Keith or not, because he has agreed to confidentiality.

But he said he has visited a Toby Keith I (heart) This Bar & Grill in another city, and really liked what he saw.

“They had a country western dance, and kids were dancing with their families. There were also people in their 70s and 80s,” he said. “It was mostly couples. It was so nice to see couples dancing together – not 10 feet apart and jumping up and down, but holding hands and twirling each other.”

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