Garage plan for Convention Center gets panned

A developer hoping to build a parking garage across the street from the Pennsylvania Convention Center got an earful last night, as he tried to sell his controversial plan to a seemingly skeptical neighborhood.

Center Square residents and community representatives packed a meeting hall in the Arch Street United Methodist Church, at Broad and Arch streets, seemingly galvanized by a column in last week’s Inquirer that was critical of the project. The proposal calls for a 530-space parking garage and street-level retail on a stretch of Arch Street across the street from the Convention Center expansion.

Attendees questioned the need for parking ― one woman said the project was “encouraging car traffic” ― so close to the city’s largest SEPTA stations and expressed concern about the type of businesses that would take up the 16,000 square feet of retail space. Those who said they don’t want a Starbucks or McDonald’s on the site were greeted by applause.

Developer Dennis Maloomian, for his part, implored residents to give him ideas of what kinds of retail they’d like to see, saying that pleasing them made good business sense.

“I promise you it won’t be a Subway,” he said.

Architecture firm Erdy McHenry also came in for some criticism for its renderings of the new streetscape in front of the building, with one resident saying it looked too “suburban” because it was missing recessed entrances for storefronts and lacked important amenities like bike racks ― which Maloomian agreed was a “good point.”

And though the architects envision a green roof over the retail section of the development, one resident asked them to consider putting a green roof over the parking deck itself, which would be set back to preserve views of the church steeple ― something architect Scott Erdy said was of “great concern to me.”

Among church members ― who represented about half of the crowd ― there was concern that the proposed garage would block light from entering windows on the eastern part of sanctuary.

An essay distributed at the meeting said “natural sunlight is a gift from God” and closed with a prayer “that sunlight will continue to pour into our east windows.”

Maloomian, president of Realen Properties, said there was a need for an “organized solution” to the traffic that new projects ― the Convention Center, but also the Family Court building and the proposed Dilworth Plaza redesign ― in the neighborhood would generate.

Maloomian also noted that financing for his firm’s renovation of the historic Liberty Title Building into a hotel hinged on its ability to construct a parking garage and shot back at Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron’s characterization of the project in her column.

“I lost respect for her” because she failed to mention the street-level retail that would wrap the garage, he said.

Maloomian sought to reassure church-goers that their concerns about potential damage to the historic church building during construction and the curtailment of lighting in the sanctuary would be addressed.

Rev. Robin Hynicka, the pastor of Arch Street United Methodist, asked for Realen to conduct a traffic study and got a commitment from Maloomian that his firm would continue to meet with the community.

Afterward, Hynicka said that “we don’t like the idea” of the garage but was mainly focused on negotiating a broader vision of development along Arch Street.

Parking garages “don’t have much street appeal,” he said, noting that, going forward the neighborhood had to continue its push to be taken seriously by the developer and City Council, which needs to approve a variance for the project for it to go forward.

And aesthetically, Hynicka is concerned that a garage would ruin a beautiful view.

Just behind the church, along Arch Street, pedestrians can look up and see both the church’s steeple and the nearby Masonic Temple framed by the statue of William Penn atop City Hall’s clock tower.

Hynicka said the parking garage wouldn’t only complicate long-term plans to renovate the church ― it would also block that image off from future generations.

At this point, Maloomian said he was unsure when the project would go back before the Planning Commission for a vote but that he wanted to keep the project moving forward fairly quickly.

Contact the reporter at acampisi@planphilly.com

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