Could Toby Keith be coming to Old City?

Those who like to line dance just might want to point their boots toward Old City.

Developer Robert Ambrosi’s latest proposal for the ground floor of a hotel/retail/residential development he wants to build at 401 Race Street includes a 23,000 square-foot country music themed bar/restaurant/dance venue affiliated with country music legend Toby Keith.

Ambrosi told a gathering of residents’ group leaders and First District Councilman Frank DiCicco at a Wednesday night meeting that he’s talking to Toby Keith’s I (heart) This Bar and Grill about opening an establishment in the hotel’s ground floor, according to people who attended. This would include a 1,500-square foot dance floor – up from the about 500- to 700-square feet Ambrosi estimated he’d need for an earlier proposal that would have included multiple restaurants all served by the same kitchen.

“You need more room for line dancing,” said Old City Civic Association zoning committee co-chair Joe Schiavo, who attended the meeting. Schiavo described country music as one of the most accessible forms of American poetry. But residents’ concerns have nothing to do with the style of music, he said. They are worried that a zoning bill introduced by DiCicco would allow for a night-club type establishment.

Ambrosi could not be reached for comment Thursday. But at past residents meetings, planning commission meetings, and city council hearings, he has said the entertainment component is key to making the hotel development work. He and DiCicco have also said that while music and dancing are part of the mix, what goes into the space will not be a night club of the Delaware Avenue variety. Such an establishment would harm the hotel, which is the key part of the development, the developer and councilman have said.

But Schiavo says the concern isn’t limited to what would be inside when the doors first open. The bill pending in city council would give Ambrosi the by-right ability to open an establishment with food, dancing for patrons and live entertainment, Schiavo said. If the Toby Keith venue were to close, those uses would stay with the property for a year, he said, so someone else could open another venue with less a focus on food and more on alcohol and dancing and live music.

“We’ve seen this so many times in Old City,” Schiavo said.

Residents think such an occurence would be particularly bad at this location, near the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge and the U.S. Mint, because it is such a dense residential area. And some who live in the nearby condominimums and apartments have forged a new group to together voice their concerns on the 401 Race Street porposal: The Old City Residents Coalition.

DiCicco amended the zoning bill in December, nixing an electronic sign that Ambrosi said would help brand the building. But residents saw as a giant billboard as something that would detract from the surroundings or shine light into their windows.

Sean McMonagle, DiCicco’s legislative aide, said the bill “is still in limbo” and that “Frank is not going to introduce anything until we get some kind of agreement” between Old City residents and the developer. McMonagle later amended that statement, saying that while his boss “wants to make everybody happy, he is very pro-development and a get-things-done kind of guy.” At some point, if DiCicco thinks either the community or the developer is being unreasonable, he may go ahead with the bill without an agreement, McMonagle said.

DiCicco said days later, through an email, that he has not considered a no-agreement possibility. “I am only concentrating on an agreement,” he said.

McMonagle is optimistic an agreement will be reached.  “According to what I heard last night, they are not strictly opposed to a music venue,” he said. “One or two said, ‘Oh, how about a jazz club.’ Some members of the community are strictly opposed altogether to any kind of live entertainment or music venue, while others are on the fence.”

McMonagle pointed out something community members have also said – that they and the developer are in agreement on the vast majority of the development, and the remaning sticking points are about the 35,000-foot ground floor.

Francesca DiCosmo, one of the organizers of the Old City Residents Coalition, said she moved to Old City 21 years ago because she wanted to live downtown, but in a quiet, residential neighborhood. She strongly supports the hotel and residential part of Ambrosi’s proposal, but cannot imagine ever supporting any proposal that includes live entertainment.

“Allowing entertainment of any kind is not what we want back here on this side of Market Street,” she said. DiCosmo, who was at Wednesday’s meeting, said such a use is also a bad fit in a part of the city so laced with history.

Ambrosi described the Toby Keith establishment as a perfect fit for the location, McMonagle said. McMonagle said the developer brought up nearby historical sites, like Independence Hall, and said nothing could be more American than country music.
Ambrosi also said that Phialdelphia is one of the largest country music markets in the country.

Keith’s big songs include “I Want To Talk About Me,” “How Do You Like Me Now,” and “Whiskey Girl”. The restaurants are named after another hit, “I Love This Bar.” Current locations include Denver, Co; the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tulsa, OK; WinStar World Casino in Thackerville, OK. According to one website, a location is coming soon to Boston, MA.
Each location has a list of coming concerts. The menus include soups and salads, pulled pork and barbecue, fried bologna and steaks, and a deep fried twinkie dessert.

Schiavo said there are ways that the community’s concerns could be relieved: DiCicco could remove from the bill the approvals that specifically allow the proposed entertainment/restaurant/bar use of the ground floor, forcing Ambrosi to go before the zoning board of approval for a variance. Or the bill could include a sunset clause that states if the business the space opens with fails, the zoning relief granted in the bill expires.

Schiavo said residents talked with Ambrosi about a sunset provision when they first started meeting with him about two years ago, and he was not amenable to that.

Ambrosi did say Wednesday that he was willing to look at getting the roughly 40 residential housing units on fourth street built before the night club went into operation, Schiavo said. One resident suggested this, since Ambrosi said the residential building would act as a buffer.

McMonagle said DiCicco hasn’t ruled out a sunset provision and that all the residents’ requests are still under consideration.

Requiring Ambrosi to go before the ZBA would force him to put all the details of his plans in writing, Schiavo said. It would also give anyone who opposes a variance a means to appeal.

DiCicco has also talked to residents about addressing some of their concerns through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board through a provisional license, which would come with restrictions agreed to by the residents and developer.

Old City will try this method with this project, Schiavo said.

A restrictive license has given residents more comfort about a property at 118 Market Street.

It opened as Suade – a restaurant with a sophisticated menu, Schiavo said. But after 45 days, he said, the tables and chairs disappeared, leaving only booths at the parameter and a typical nightclub, complete with ropes outside. The property was closed about two and a half years ago and has re-opened as Philadelphia Bar and Restaurant. Old City was able to negotiatiate a conditional use liquor license with the owners, Schiavo said. It controls, among other things, hours of operation and the amount of seating.

The provisional license process would begin when Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill – or whatever operator who wound up in the bottom floor of the hotel – applied for a liquor license. If anyone petitions against it, the PLCB would not go forward with issuing a license until either the petitioners and applicant reached an agreement or a hearing was held. There is nothing requiring a developer to reach such an agreement, but generally, Schiavo said, reaching one is preferable to going through a hearing.

The smaller entertainment venue leaves more space within the ground floor.  Ambrosi said at the meeting that he is talking to a furniture store.

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