Hot debate over proposed Old City hotel project

To the Arc Properties team planning to develop a hotel at 401 Race Street, a billboard is a structure that can be leased to outside entities and generate revenue.

But to the Old City residents who packed Old First Reformed United Church of Christ Monday night, the large digital sign Arc wants to put on the east side of the building is definitely a billboard – even if it only advertises the hotel and other on-site businesses.

This and another disputed definition – that of a nightclub – were what added the most fuel to the at-times heated discussion.

This coming Monday morning, City Council’s Rules Committee will consider legislation that would allow the hotel, called One Franklin Square, to be built in vacant buildings that previously held a suit factory, and, earlier, a chocolate factory.

The building, located across 4th Street from the imposing, windowless wall of the U.S. Mint, is currently zoned industrial. If the committee, then council as a whole passes the bill, it would be zoned mixed-use commercial. That would allow the two existing buildings to be renovated and enlarged into a six-floor hotel with a restaurant and bar and a separately-owned restaurant or restaurants that would also have a bar and a space for live entertainment. Later, a new building with residences and commercial space on the ground floor is planned along 4th Street.

Arc CEO and founder Robert Ambrosi,  whose company also developed 10 Rittenhouse Square, described a courtyard garden in the sky on what is now the current roof of the existing building. Half of the hotel rooms would have views of the city, the others would look out onto the trees and plants in the courtyard, he said. “This is a very important location,” he said, adding that he only builds in important locations.

The bill before the rules committee, introduced by First District Councilman Frank DiCicco, allows for 35,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor.  Ambrosi said it won’t be that big, at least at first. It will be more like 22,000 feet, he said, including loading areas, kitchens, and other utilitarian spaces the public will never use or see.

What was clear from the very beginning of the meeting was that many residents, the councilman, the developer and members of Old City Civic were all frustrated.

Over the weekend, someone passed out fliers saying that a 35,000 square foot nightclub was proposed for the property, and that is simply not true, DiCicco said. He said he was disappointed in Old City Civic for not doing something to straighten that out.

Ambrosi was unhappy with the opening remarks made by Joe Schiavo from the Old City Civic Association’s building committee. Schiavo had said the planning commission opposed the ordinance in its current form. Ambrosi and project attorney Ron Patterson said that the commission voted in favor of the ordinance after amending it. Schiavo said that he had not said anything false – the planning commission did not approve the version of the bill that currently exists.

To read about and watch an information-only presentation on the proposal Arc made to the planning commisison in August, go here and scroll toward the bottom of the story. The presentation can be seen in the second video, starting at about the 42 minute mark. Here is video from the Oct. 10 meeting where commissioners voted on the bill.

Ambrosi also said that while the bill would allow for live music, he doesn’t know if there will be any. In fact, he said, because he does not yet have tenants for the retail/commercial space, he is not sure exactly what will go there.

He has pledged that there will be no outside DJs renting the space to hold dances there (an in-house DJ, or one brought in for a wedding or event would be allowed), and that whatever music was played inside, it would never be heard outside the property. The dance floor would only be about 500 feet, he said.

Ambrosi and Old City Civic are working on an agreement separate from the ordinance that would define what can and cannot be in the space in more detail than what the planning commission thought appropriate for a zoning bill.  This is where Ambrosi has agreed to keep all sound within the building. He said he is also willing to consider shutting down all live entertainment at midnight – but that depends on what the agreement terms are, as a whole.

DiCicco said he’s been to night clubs, and this would not be a night club. He understands that no one wants the clubs that used to be on Delaware Avenue to reappear in Old City, and that won’t happen.

He said this would be more like having an after-dinner drink, then dancing to some jazz with your spouse afterward.

DiCicco and Ambrosi said the project would provide much more value to the neighborhood than would anything that could be built at the site with its current zoning – such as a self-storage facility.

After the meeting, project attorney Patterson said that the property would include a nightclub only by the strictest definition – that in the city’s zoning code.  “Anything with music other than piped in music – with a DJ or a band – is technically a nightclub,” he said. “An area with a dance floor is technically a  night club.”

If someone working at a themed restaurant changes the CDs that are playing, he’s considered a DJ, Patterson said.

Consider The Prime Rib, an upscale steak and seafood restaurant that has live piano and accompaniment some nights. That, Patterson said, is considered a nightclub by code. But it is certainly not the raucous environment that Old City residents are afraid of, and neither would this be.

The driving force of the development is the hotel, Patterson said, and so nightlife that would hurt the hotel would never be encouraged.

Ambrosi said after the meeting that critics are tossing around the word nightclub because they “are using it as leverage. They are stirring up the fear factor.”

Ambrosi said the retail space would have at least one restaurant – more would be better. He also hopes there will be a supermarket and a dry cleaner. But he repeatedly told the audience that he couldn’t say for sure, because he is still in the talking stage with would-be tenants.

Schiavo said that since there is uncertainty, Old City would like the portion of the ordinance that allows a restaurant and entertainment venue up to 35,000 square feet to be removed from the ordinance. When more is known about what will go in the space, details could be added with an amendment, he said. Ambrosi said the current language is necessary so that the developers can “leave themselves open” to different options, such as having bands every once in awhile.

About that sign
Early in the meeting, Ambrosi announced that plans for a billboard on the side of the hotel that will be visible from the Ben Franklin Bridge had been scrapped. Relief audibly went through the crowd.

Late in the meeting, that relief turned to outrage when the development team said there would be an electronic sign there, but it would not be a billboard.

Chip Brickman, who for more than four years has lived in a condo near the proposed development site, was one of the people relieved when he heard there would be no billboard, because the lights from a sign would pour into his windows and interfere with his quality of life, he said.

He was angry when he was later told that a large sign would be part of the project. Others in the room said they considered themselves lied to.

“People don’t care about it being ‘accessory’ or ‘non-accessory,’ said Brickman.

It was equally clear that Ambrosi and his team thought they had made a sacrifice by giving up a revenue source. Ambrosi recently told the Philadelphia City Planning Commission that the income a billboard would generate was crucial to the project. After the meeting, project attorney Patterson said the developer had “found a way” to make the numbers work without it.

The development team has described the signage as a work of art that will help brand the hotel and make it a destination. It would not be something ugly that would detract from the hotel, they said.

Despite the heated debate, most of the residents, Old City Civic representatives, and the developers seem to be in agreement on the vast majority of the project.

Schiavo and Ambrosi said that in the two years they’ve been discussing the project, the hotel team and Old City Civic have had mostly friendly discourse, and Old City Civic has been pleased with the team’s willingness to shrink the height of the project, and put the tallest part away from residences.

Old City Civic believes there is need for a hotel. And many at the meeting applauded the fact that the development would bring new life to a long-dead corner, and bring jobs.

Old City Civic Development Committee remains unhappy with proposed ordinance

Old City Civic Association’s Developments Committee met Tuesday to talk about information gathered Monday night and to take a position in preparation for Monday’s rules committee meeting.

Schiavo said the developments committee concluded that the ordinance should be amended so that zoning is changed from L-4 to C-3, but the additional changes should not be included.

The committee also does not want the ordinance to grant the developer relief from signage zoning controls that currently govern the parcel, nor the height restrictions and other requirements of the Old City zoning overlay. “It is the position of the OCCA Developments Commitee that there should be no approvals for signage of any type included in the proposed ordinance,” Schiavo wrote in an email. “It is the position of the OCCA Developments Committee that the proposed ordinance not include any approvals for the 35,000 s.f. retail/commercial space, due to the absence of definition or plan for that area.”

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com.

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