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Councilman says a decision must soon be made on a controversial Old City hotel project

Legislation that would allow a hotel with a lower-level Toby Keith honkytonk to be built in Old City will be voted on by City Council within the next few weeks, said First District Councilman Frank DiCicco.

A Wednesday night meeting between developer Robert Ambrosi and his team, DiCicco – who introduced the project-related zoning bill – and Old City resident representatives did not resolve the outstanding issues related to the first-floor dining, dancing and entertainment venue.

Ambrosi, of ARC Properties, has been talking to Old City residents and DiCicco about his intentions for two empty buildings and a bit of surrounding property at 4th and Race Streets, near the Ben Franklin Bridge, for about two years. At the residents’ urging, a large electronic sign was removed from the proposal, and the massing of the building was shifted away from the residential area.  And most residents have always embraced the hotel and residential parts of the project.

Here is where talks keep getting hung up: Ambrosi says the project is dependent on having a lively business on the ground floor, with food, a bar and entertainment, that will attract people to the otherwise quiet corner near the U.S. Mint. Some residents see a city council approval of this configuration of offerings as either a nightclub or a potential gateway for a nightclub and they plain don’t want such a thing. Others are willing to accept such a venue, with quality-of-life protections for the neighborhood built into the still-in-the-works community agreement. But should the original venue ever go out of business, they want the approvals that allowed it to operate to sunset, requiring the developer to re-apply for approvals to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Old City Civic zoning committee co-chair Joe Schiavo said that Ambrosi – who could not be reached for comment – will not agree to an automatic sunset because he believes it could potentially put his investment at risk.

Schiavo said the developer was willing to agree that if the original establishment should fail, the approvals would sunset if the next entity were “substantially different,” a term residents found much too vague. Schiavo and DiCicco said that attorneys are now drafting a definition for what “substantially different” means.  And DiCicco said he is also “tightening up” the legislation to offer more protections.  DiCicco said Old City residents’ concerns that an acceptable venue might close and then be replaced with a night club are understandable, given that this has happened nearby in the past. “If this one fails, I do not want a stand-alone entertainment venue there,” he said. “There has to be a hotel.”

Schiavo said residents would like a big tweak to the bill: They’d like to see the specific approvals that apply to the ground floor space removed, so that the bill simply changed the zoning from industrial to mixed-use commercial, but the developer would have to get waivers for the specific uses he wants on the ground floor. They’ve been asking for many months, and DiCicco hasn’t budged on that one.

DiCicco’s bill got the planning commission’s blessing and was passed out of City Council’s Rules Committee last November. For months, it has been sitting on City Council’s agenda, ready to be voted on. But DiCicco hasn’t asked it to be brought up for a vote to allow the community and developer to continue working on their differences.

But DiCicco said after Thursday’s City Council meeting that within the next few weeks, he will need to make any adjustments to the legislation and move forward with it. “I don’t want to see that building remain vacant,” he said.  The hotel would be built at the site of a former suit factory.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Schiavo said the development team continued to tell the community representatives that the presence of the hotel protects the neighborhood from anything resembling a nightclub or other disruptions to the community. “They said that people in a community can be tolerant of a little nuisance, as the price of living in the city, but a hotel occupant is only staying for one night, and they are intolerant of any disturbance or nuisance.”

Schiavo said the residents aren’t completely comforted by that, because the hotel rooms start at the fourth floor and above, so guests will be insulated from any disturbance that might occur at ground level after 2 am, when patrons of the ground floor establishment disperse.

The hotel is to be a Starwood property – an Aloft hotel, specifically  – and residents learned for the first time that those behind the hotel are in a 50-50 equity partnership with Ambrosi, Schiavo said.

Some meeting attendees asked the development team why the hotel couldn’t have a white tablecloth restaurant on the ground floor, operated by a known local entity like Stephen Starr or Jose Garces, Schiavo said. They were told that chains are more predictable and rarely go out of business.

Some attendees felt that a locally owned establishment would fit in more with the creative vibe of Old City than a chain does.

And others questioned how well the particular chain under discussion – Toby Keith’s I (heart) This Bar and Grille, with it’s down-home menu, country music and line dancing – would fit in, especially with the Aloft hotel. “They are high-end, boutique hotels, and attractively designed,” Schiavo said.  And attendees were told that 60 percent of the hotel guests are expected to be people traveling on business and looking for a luxury hotel experience. “People were saying it just seems a bad fit.”

Schiavo said the development team said that some of the business guests would like the Toby Keith establishment, and 30 percent of guests are likely to be tourists. And the Toby Keith establishment would act as a draw to bring even more Philadelphia tourists to the ground floor.

“Everyone felt this was an unsatisfactory response,” Schiavo said.  Residents thought it made more sense to have an establishment catering to the majority of hotel guests on the ground floor of the hotel,  he said.

In addition to the hotel and restaurant/entertainment establishment, the project has a retail component and a small residential component on 4th Street that Ambrosi has said would act as a buffer between the development and existing residences.

Schiavo said Old City had strongly hoped that Ambrosi would agree to build the residences simultaneously with the hotel, but he would not. “That’s disappointing,” Schiavo said. Ambrosi has said in the past that such an agreement isn’t possible in this real estate market. Schiavo said the developer told those gathered Wednesday night that he would build the residential portion as soon as possible.

No further community/developer meetings have been set yet.

Contact the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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