Controversial hotel proposal heads to City Council

A proposed Old City hotel with up to 35,000 square feet of restaurants, retail and live entertainment and a 1,200 square foot digital sign came one step closer to reality Monday afternoon.

City Council’s rules committee unanimously passed legislation proposed by First District Councilman Frank DiCicco after hearing from the developer and supporters who said the hotel and other uses create the right project for the now vacant 401 Race Street property. Residents close to the project say they do not want a huge, electronic sign or an entertainment venue that sounds like a nightclub to them.

The proposal will be heard by City Council on Thursday, and a final vote could happen as soon as next week’s meeting.

Representatives of the Old City Civic Association told the committee that they have supported many hotels in their neighborhood, and they’d love one on this spot, too. But they urged the rules committee to strike from the bill the portions that allow the sign and the retail/restaurant/entertainment space, keeping only the portion that would switch the zoning of the parcel from industrial to C-3 commercial.

“All the approvals included in Bill 100552, beyond the change of zoning classification, are an objectionable circumvention of the public process of considering and granting exception from the terms of the zoning code,” Old City Civic Development Committee Vice Chair Joe Schiavo told the committee. 

But if the committee wasn’t willing to strip the legislation down to just the zoning change, Schiavo said, Old City Civic hoped they would at least make some other changes, including leaving zoning rules that guide billboards in the area in place. “Lifting specific
land-use regulations of the zoning code to provide advantage to this, or any other developer, without justification other than it is the wish of the developer to gain such exception or advantage, is entirely unacceptable,” Schiavo said. Doing so would result in no benefit to the community, he said. Read Schiavo’s full testimony here.

Schiavo urged the committee to consider that Developer Arc Properties does not have specific plans for the retail/restaurant/entertainment part of the project, and said it would be better to hold approval until there are more specifics, because to do otherwise would be to give the developer too much leeway.

Arc Properties  principal, Robert Ambrosi, and other Arc representatives promised that they did not want anything resembling a nightclub. But the development team wants to leave open the possibility of live music, or a DJ affiliated with a restaurant or a wedding, and a small dance floor. While the zoning code defines what they want as a nightclub, the development team said, they were thinking more along the lines of a place to hear jazz. What most people would consider a nightclub would hurt their hotel’s business, they said.

Ambrosi said it was typical of such business dealings that some details cannot be worked out until the developer has city approvals in hand. The issue of what should be nailed down ahead of time was also key to what at times seemed like an argument between Ambrosi and Councilman-At-Large Wilson Goode, Jr.

Goode grilled Ambrosi and other project representatives about minority hiring and wages. The committee seemed largely satisfied with the developers committment to hire a diverse workforce. But Goode  was not happy when Ambrosi told him that wages at the hotel, which is set to be a Starwood property, had not been discussed yet. Goode said that because of fair wage laws passed in the city recently, wages should be largely determined before a project comes before a council committee. Ambrosi said while a franchise has been chosen, talks are still on-going to find the hotel operator, and it is the operator who will deal with wages.  But after one of his team whispered in his ear, Ambrosi told the committee that Starwood has a committment to honor all local wage laws in the cities where it operates.

Ambrosi said the sign is an essential part of his plan, because it will help attract people to the development. He said a sign like this would not be needed if the proposed development were surrounded by active businesses, but it is instead boxed in by the huge wall of the U.S. Mint, Franklin Square and the Ben Franklin Bridge. Ambrosi had originally proposed that the sign generate revenue for the project through the advertising of off-site businesses or events. He has withdrawn that part of the proposal based on community opposition, but to the community, the sign is still a billboard that will flood some residences with unwanted light and detract from the neighborhood’s character.

The sign was specifically designed, Ambrosi said,  so that it would not bother residents. It is placed at an angle, recessed into the building, and surrounded with screening elements so that it is only visible from one spot – The Ben Franklin Bridge.

Some Old City residents testified that they did not see how the light from the billboard could possibly be kept from entering their homes, considering the orientation of their windows to where the sign will be.

Mary Tracy, founder of the Society to Curb Urban Blight – aka, SCRUB – testified that the sign would be a huge distraction to drivers crossing the bridge, and that other cities across the country had put moratoriums on the digital signs in place because they distract drivers.

The committee heard from several groups other than the development team which spoke in favor of the bill, including Michael Mattioni, chairman of the Old City District. “We find the project very exciting, especially given the present economic climate,” he said. James Cuorato, president and CEO of Independence Visitors Center, said the project would provide needed hotel rooms and give those who stay in them more places to eat and play.

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission recommended approval, provided the bill was amended. The changes, mostly of a technical nature, were accepted by the committee.
Another amendment was added in response to Schiavo’s testimony that his committee was troubled that nothing in the legislation would prevent the developer from opening the 35,000 square foot restaurant/retail/entertainment portion of the development without the hotel. The amendment states the developer cannot get a zoning permit for that space until the permit for the hotel has been awarded.

Between now and the final city council vote, the rules committee wants the developer and Old City Civic to continue to work toward a community agreement that could place limitations or requirements on the developer that are not covered by ordinance. They have already been negotiating for two years, and some items have been agreed to – for example, the developer has said he would be willing to put in writing that no fast-food establishments would be part of the development and that any live entertainment would have a cut-off time.

But judging by the testimony given Monday, significant agreement pertaining to the sign or entertainment/retail portion of the proposal seem unlikely. After the meeting, Schiavo said he and the other Old City residents will be bringing the same concerns to city council on Thursday.

In other action, the Rules Committee passed on to full council a bill that calls for the creation of an environmental control district at Fox Chase Farm in the Northeast. The special district would prohibit commercial farming at the site, which is jointly operated by School District of Philadelphia and the Fairmount Park Commission as an educational facility. City planning recommended the bill fail because the farm is currently zoned recreational, and commercial farming is not allowed under that classification, so the ordinance, planners said, would be redundant.

In addition, planners said, “the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation currently has no interest in placing commercial farming at this location or in changing ongoing programs.”

Planners had also recommended against the passage of a similar ordinance for Manatawna Farm in Roxborough, also saying the ordinance was redundant. The Rules Committeee, and then City Council, recently passed that bill. In the Manatawna case, city Parks and Rec did plan to bring small-scale, commercial farming to the area. Bill advocates said that taking the five acres out of hay production would harm Saul Agricultural High School, which uses the hay to feed its animals, and would also erode the habitat the farm provides for meadowlarks and other birds.

On the heels of the passage of the Manatawna bill, Fox Chase advocates lobbied for a bill of their own. Those who testified in support of the bill Monday kept saying that Parks and Rec had plans to bring commercial farming to the farm, despite planners’ assurance that no such plans existed. The lease between the school district and Fairmount Park, which expires in 2029, specifies that no commercial farming is allowed.

Councilman Brian O’Neill, who introduced the bill, told the committee that he knows both the current zoning and the lease prohibit commercial farming, but this legislation makes it “crystal clear.”

Contact the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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