Developer of proposed Old City hotel complex says to understand his plans is to love them

It’s up to Old City residents whether the commercial space on the ground floor of a proposed hotel contains a bowling alley, an assortment of restaurants and a live music venue, or a country-western themed restaurant and store with music and line dancing, said developer Robert Ambrosi.

“All three are set to go,” Ambrosi said in a Friday interview. “We are trying to work with the community to basically say, ‘Which do you prefer?’” But ‘none of the above’ is just not an option, Ambrosi said.

“The hotel is demanding that I bring in some sort of energy generator for the hotel,” he said. “They want this.”

It is also the hotel, Ambrosi said, that should give residents confidence that whichever style of entertainment goes on the ground floor, it will not turn into a noisy nightclub that adds loud drunks to Old City streets. Starwood Hotels, the operator, has “restrictive covenants on what we can do,” Ambrosi said. “Do you really think we would put a nightclub there and destroy our hotel?”

Ambrosi has been talking to Old City residents and First District Councilman Frank DiCicco for about two years regarding this project. All parties agree that concessions – including the recent elimination of a large, electronic sign – have been made. And the developer and the community agree on most of the development at this point. The commercial/retail space beneath the hotel remains a sticking point, and DiCicco is holding off on bringing the legislation that allows it to council, waiting for Ambrosi and the community to reach an agreement.

Ambrosi, DiCicco, and community leaders met earlier this week. Ambrosi said he believes that “the silent majority” of Old City residents like the project, and that those objecting are a “vocal minority.”  And he believes most of those who are voicing their concerns would be pleased with the project if they knew more about it.

Representatives of two residents organizations told PlanPhilly that the big remaining issue is the entertainment venue. Concerns remain about what the space would open with, but a huge resident worry is what could happen in the space if whatever business it starts out with should close.

Old City Civic Association zoning committee co-chair Joe Schiavo said in an interview Thursday that residents would feel more protected if DiCicco’s bill did not include the specific uses of the ground floor. This would allow most of the project to be built as planned, but would require Ambrosi and his company, ARC Properties, to get a zoning variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The application process would require a lot of detail that residents would find useful, Schiavo said, and the process also gives residents the power to appeal. Schiavo also said that residents will be pursuing a conditional liquor license which would place limitations on the establishment.

Ambrosi said he is amenable to a conditional use liquor license and has told residents as much. But he does not want DiCicco to strip the allowable uses for the ground floor space out of the bill. It is the passing of this legislation that will give the hotel operator the assurances it needs to go forward with the project, he said. Passing legislation that required a separate trip to the ZBA would not give the hotel enough confidence that the other uses it wants on the ground floor are a certainty, he said.

“We have given Old City all the protection that they need,” he said.

Ambrosi said he left the Wednesday night meeting with DiCicco and residents feeling good. It was a productive meeting with a lot of information exchanged, he said. He knows some residents won’t ever be amenable to his project, but he felt like he got through to a lot of them. He feels that he’s made all the concessions he needs to, and that now, it’s about educating residents. Some people who are afraid “don’t take the time to investigate, to understand what we are doing,” he said. “At some point, you just have to have a little trust. Look what I’ve done elsewhere. Look at how I’ve worked with everybody. Look at the quality of the plans.”

Ambrosi, who developed 10 Rittenhouse Square, wants the community to see is how the project has been divided into two separate parts: The hotel/restaurant/entertainment venue is on 5th Street, facing the direction of the tourist attractions, he said, while the 55-unit residential portion faces 4th Street and the residential area. The property, which Ambrosi owns, actually consists of two existing, adjacent buildings. The concrete building that faces 5th Street will become the hotel.

He is talking to a furniture store, a health club, a spa and a gourmet food store about locating in the residential portion of the development, he said. “We don’t want active restaurants on the 4th Street side,” he said. “This is a quiet, passive area.”

Ambrosi said he has agreed to move the entrance to the hotel/restaurant/entertainment part of the development to the corner of Race and 5th Streets, and to put restrictions in the community agreement with Old City that would prohibit anything but a residential development from going up on that spot.

Ambrosi believes if he were only developing the residential space, and then another developer later came in and did the hotel/entertainment/restaurant piece, there would be no issue. But because one developer is handling both sides of the project, he said, there is a misconception that a restaurant/entertainment venue is going up on 4th Street.

The residential development would “act as a buffer” separating the community from the hotel, he said.

At the Wednesday night meeting, one resident asked if he would get the residential buffer up and occupied before opening the hotel and entertainment portion.

Ambrosi said during the PlanPhilly interview that he is going to investigate building both portions simultaneously, but he will not promise to do so.

The housing market, which has been horrible, has shown signs of improvement, he said. And if his research shows it is strong enough, he will build the residences at the same time as the rest of the project.

Even the best market conditions won’t prompt him to build the residences first, he said, because the hotel amenities – the pool, the outdoor fire pits, the dog walking area – make the residential units more desirable and valuable.

While Ambrosi said he’ll bring whichever operator the community favors to the space beneath the hotel, he sounds very enthusiastic when he talks about the country-music themed venue.

People who attended the Wednesday night meeting said Ambrosi is talking to an establishment affiliated with a country legend, Tony Keith’s I (heart) This Bar and Grill. Ambrosi did not confirm that specific detail. But he enthused that a country-music themed establishment would be perfect for 5th Street.

“The area is dead right now,” he said. A music venue and a hotel would attract families who go to the Constitution Center, Independence Hall and Liberty Bell to Old City, where they would patronize Old City galleries, restaurants, and other businesses, he said. And a country-themed place fits perfectly with those attractions, he said, allowing families to experience another American icon – a musical one. “Country music is American,” he said. “Doesn’t the Liberty Bell, the Constitution Center and country music go together? To me, it’s a perfect synergy.”

Country music is also popular with locals, he said. “Philadelphia is the 9th-largest market in the United States, and it has the fifth-most popular country western radio station in the United States,” he said.

While residents groups have voiced concerns, there have also been fans of the project testifying before city council. Among them: Old City District Board Member and Neff Associates owner David Neff and Independence Visitors Center CEO James Cuorato.

Cuorato has twice served as Philadelphia’s commerce director. “If I were still director of commerce, I’d be standing on my head trying to attract a project like this to Philadelphia,” Cuorato said. “It takes a vacant property and redevelops it. It creates jobs and it attracts visitors and residence alike.”

Cuorato said everyone heres all about the need for hotels near the Convention Center, but there is need for more rooms in Old City, too. Adding amenities like a restaurant, shopping and live music are also important, he said. The more attractions there are, the longer tourists will stay in the area, he said.

Cuorato said of the three proposals, the one he thinks would bring the least to the area – from  his perspective as someone who advocates for tourists and visitors – is the bowling alley.  He’s not a fan of Toby Keith, but he saw one of his restaurants at Harrah’s in Las Vegas, and said it seemed to be very popular with families. 

Neff hasn’t lived in Old City for years, but his public relations and advertising firm remains there. Neff said he couldn’t speak for the Old City District, but as an individual, he’s very excited to see a substantial development planned for a vacant building, particularly one at such a key location.

The parcel is “critically important” because it sits at the north east corner of Old City and is one of the first things people see when they come into the neighborhood that way or from New Jersey. “It literally is a gateway point for people coming over the Ben Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia and it’s been a black hole,” he said.

Neff said he looks forward to having a drink while sitting outside on a spot overlooking the bridge.

He was a bit surprised to learn that a country music venue was among the proposed options – he doesn’t think of Philadelphia as a country western kind of town.

“But if it is the best use, so be it,” Neff said. “It’s not like the country western line dancers are going to be disrupting anyone in the neighborhood. And they may chose to dine at other Old City establishments or go into Old City early and do some shopping and one of the distinctive destinations.”

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