Conversion of grand bank building into fancy pool hall passes city planning

Developer Paul Giegerich thinks a former Chestnut Street bank could be a pretty swank spot for a game of pool, and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and Preservation Alliance agree with him.

But not everybody does. In fact, it is the disagreement of “at least one resident” who lives near the former Beneficial bank at Chestnut and 12th Streets that brought Geigerich before the planning commission this week.

The developer had planned to get the zoning relief needed to have pool tables and an eat-in restaurant and exceed the existing height limits at this spot from the Zoning Board of Adjustment. But “at least one resident” of the White Building condos promised to appeal any ZBA approval, thereby tying up the project, Commission Chair and Deputy Mayor for Planning and Development Alan Greenberger said.

So the developer decided to seek the same relief via a city council ordinance. That zoning bill, 110083, was introduced by First District Councilman Frank DiCicco on Feb. 10.

Greenberger noted that under the in-the-works new zoning code, all of the items for which Geigerich’s team now needs variances will be permitted uses.

Project attorney Ron Patterson of Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg and architect Dave Schultz of DAS Architects told the commission that both the inside and outside of the former Beneficial Bank would hardly be touched.

“It is almost a century old, and I can’t imagine it not being there a century from now,” Schultz said.

The building with the large white columns was built in 1916. It was designed by noted Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer, whose work also includes The Philadelphia Art Museum, The Free Library and Irvine Auditorium on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

One noteable change would be the addition of a roof-top bar with a retractable glass ceiling. Schultz said it has been set back so that it is not visible from the ground.

The project, called 1200 Bank, is connected with Amsterdam Billiards in New York City, Patterson said. The marbled first floor, which is about 5,000 square feet, would be home to 17 pool tables, a bar and a restauarant. The upper floor would provide extra space for any overflow of diners, but would also be rentable banquet space for private parties. There would be an 8-foot wall constructed along 12th Street to keep any sound from the outdoor bar from wafting over to residences, Patterson said.

Through a spokesperson, Giegerich said he is still working on the food concepts. Talks with restauranteur Stephen Starr have stalled, but he continues to negotiate with Cube Libre’s Larry Cohen and Barry Gutin. He is also considering hiring an in-house chef.

The pool tables would be rented by the hour, Patterson said. The city’s prohibition on pool halls in the area operates from the standpoint that all pool halls are seedy, Patterson said, and that is an antiquated view. But eliminating coin-operated tables is a way to differentiate the property from an arcade, he said.

Patterson told the commission that the developer has agreed to restrictions on parking, hours of operation and other things. It prohibits live music at the outdoor part of the venue. “The idea is if the pool hall happens to leave, somebody could not jump in and put in a use that would be unwanted or unanticipated, like the largest night club in the world,” he said.

Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia Executive Director John Gallery told the commission that he took part in the discussion when the city Historical Commission approved the billiard hall project. His organization supported that vote. “We thought the changes to the exterior were reasonable,” he said. The interior is also beautiful, he said. Shortly after Beneficial Bank left the building in 2001, Gallery went inside. “I immediately starting calling people. ‘How can we find someone to use the space?’”

The building has grand, two-story banking space in it, Gallery said, but it isn’t all that much floor space and it is hard to find a use that could go in without making big changes. This plan does that, he said.

After speaking for the Alliance, Gallery spoke for himself. “My personal statement is that I happen to be a pool addict on the side,” he said, getting a few laughs. “I’ve played competitive pool in every major city in the United States and in Europe, and in every place that I’ve played in, the downtown area has a really first-class billards club or pool facility. Philadelphia has none. The closest place you can get is Dave and Busters, and believe me, Dave and Busters is not the place where competitive pool players would want to go.”

Gallery said he’s familiar with Amsterdam Billiards, and it’s the type of place Philadelphia needs to help it become the next great American city.

After hearing about Gallery’s pool addiction, Greenberger said he wasn’t up for a “real challenge,” but he would like to have a friendly game with him.

“I’ll take winners,” project attorney Patterson chimed in.

No one spoke in opposition to the bill, and the commission voted unanimously in support. City Council must adopt the bill for the legislation to take effect.

During a Thursday morning interview, Washington Square West Civic Association Vice Chairman Carl Engelke said the association supports the project, but is still reviewing the proposed legislation and has not taken a position on it yet.

Engleke said it took a lot of negotation to reach the agreement in which the community was promised certain safeguards, much of which deal with the open-air lounge slated for the roof. “They built an enclosure that could possibly be open in nice weather, or always be closed” depending on whether the noise generated is troublesome to neighbors, Engelke said. The agreement calls for a trial period where the roof will be open and noise readings will be taken, he said. “We support the project according to the provisos we voted on.”

But when Washington Square West was negotiating, the developer’s plan was still to get zoning relief through the ZBA, Engelke said. ZBA relief would have applied to just this project, while the bill applies to the area between Chestnut and Sansom, 12th and 13th streets. A better sense of what this could mean for the entire area is needed before a community vote can be taken, he said. “We have some concerns that it is perhaps attacking a mouse with a bazooka,”

He has requested a meeting with DiCicco and the 1200 Bank team so Washington Square West can learn more about the ordinance before the Rules Committee holds a public hearing on it. The hearing date has not been set yet.

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