EFCC Zoning Committee discusses a Sunoco redesign and Falls Center development

Before John Anderson loosened his gold tie, he leaned down to the drinking fountain. As he drew water, Anderson turned to his associate from Cornerstone Consulting and offered an appraisal that spoke both to prevailing climactic conditions and to the ambience of the meeting that adjourned moments prior.

“It got hot in there,” he said.

There was no audible dissent among the 30 participants to silence the aging and noisy air conditioner in the Philadelphia University classroom in which they met. However, over the course of the evening, it would prove to be one of few moments of true equanimity at last night’s East Falls Community Council’s Zoning Committee meeting, held in Downs Hall.

The meeting was centered upon two topics that have given East Falls residents cause for concern in recent months – the redesign of the Sunoco gas station situated on Ridge and Midvale avenues, and the ongoing development of Falls Center on Henry Avenue, formerly known as the Medical College of Philadelphia.

Meg Greenfield, Chairwoman of the EFCC’s Zoning and Land Use Committee, presided.

Presenting for Sunoco were Anderson, engineer for Cornerstone Consulting, and attorney George Kroculick of Duane Morris, LLP. Using a PowerPoint presentation, they explained a variety of issues regarding the gas station’s rehabilitation.

“This is an engineering show, not a legal one” said Kroculick, in regard to the presentation’s contents.

At the core of the new design is the expansion of the APlus convenience store from 2,000 to 3,000 square feet, further distancing the building from Midvale Avenue to accommodate increased parking and eliminate 360-degree vehicle access, and the addition of green spaces to two sides of the lot.

In addition, egress to Midvale Avenue would be reduced from two access points – or curb cuts – to one.

This revelation sparked the first round of controversy in the Sunoco presentation, as the reduction in curb cuts – taken in conjunction with a proposed triangle median at the intersection of Midvale Avenue and Kelly Drive – would result in the elimination of several parking spaces along Midvale opposite the gas station.

Responding to the resultant rancor in the classroom, Anderson said that this was a “compromise situation” to accommodate the turning radius of fuel delivery vehicles as they exit to Midvale Avenue. He said that a practice run involving Sunoco representatives, an empty tanker truck, and personnel from the Streets Department took place which illustrated the need for a wide berth.

Anderson was quick to point out that Sunoco was not the originator of the plan, saying that, “it wasn’t us that dictated that parking would be eliminated – that was the recommendation of the Streets Department.”

Signage debate

Further debate was generated over the issue of signage. Referring to the screen behind him, Anderson explained that new signs will be installed, with the current manual 3-product price sign giving way to 2-product price signs with LED displays.

In doing so, he also stated that the new signs will conform to current zoning regulation of 20 feet in height, and in doing so admitted that the present signs – at 21 and 23 feet, respectively – are currently non-compliant.

This admission triggered a variety of remonstrations, perhaps most succinctly captured by Greenfield’s question, “Why do you need a twenty foot sign anyway?”

Citing corporate interests, Anderson said that raising visibility and awareness of Sunoco’s brand and price point was paramount, as was “capturing the attention of motorists on Kelly Drive and Ridge Avenue.”

Buttressing this, Kroculick cited government statues, stating that “federal law requires that we prominently display price.”

Residents were not mollified by these justifications. Addressing the entire room,  Tom Sauerman, president of the East Falls Community Council, said, “I know that the Sunoco people probably think we’re crazy, but what I’d like [Anderson and Kroculick] to do is go back and talk to the people at your company, and tell them that this is the entrance to our community, and that the signs the way they are a garish mess.”

Sauerman continued. “What you’re working on now is something we will have to live with for 30 or 40 years, so I’d like the people you work for to come down here and drive through East Falls, and then they’ll see what the real impact is for this community.”

Kroculick said in response that he lived in East Falls as well and, recognizing the competing – and sometimes, conflicting – interests of commerce and community, offered that sometimes “[my employers] ask where my loyalties lie.”

Proposing addition of bowling alley at local fitness center 

The drubbings weren’t solely reserved for Sunoco. Representing the Falls Center was Sam Weiner of Iron Stone Strategic Capital Partners, who was pitching the addition of a bowling alley to the SWEAT fitness center. According to Weiner, the sporting complex would be located in a mostly subterranean space that used to house MCP’s animal laboratories, and would have both a dedicated entrance off of Henry Avenue and 73 dedicated parking spaces.

Immediately, there was some furor over the means of community notification. Weiner said that he had taken the necessary steps of posting notices on light poles and near homes, but was rebuffed by Greenfield, who said that she was concerned about the lack of notice, and the seemingly few residents who either saw or received notification. Admitting that the recent rainstorms may have contributed to the lack of awareness, Greenfield called for a quick meeting of Committee members in camera and, upon their return, motioned to postpone a decision until Aug. 24.

Addressing complaints about Falls Center 

However, Weiner wasn’t out of the hot seat just yet. Despite the reason for his presence being, in his words, “to talk about parking,” he agreed to address a number of complaints from various community members and representatives about Falls Center in general.

Among the more vocal was Adam Carangi, who voiced concerns about the seeming lack of coherence in regard to tenancy, stating that Falls Center is “a hodge-podge of things that isn’t helping me at all as a neighbor.”

In response, Weiner cited the Center’s ongoing expansion, stating that “we’re a mixed use facility…and as we grow, we’re beginning to cater more to the surrounding community.”

In addition, he deflected concerns that the proposed bowling alley would be applying for a liquor license. Furthermore, Weiner said that a “comprehensive plan” was being developed in regard to signage at the facility – referred to by Carangi as looking “ridiculous” – and that they were “trying not to renew” their contract with Pennsylvania Transit Company, which was cited by those in attendance last night as being one of the tenants least beneficial to the immediate community.

“I’m not against it,” said Carangi in regard to the ongoing development of commercial properties in East Falls, “I just want to make sure it’s done right.”

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