New York builders plan grocery store and apartments in Divine Lorraine’s backyard

Clues have been popping up for months that something big may be coming to the large, long-vacant, fenced-off lot at 13th and Fairmount, behind the old Divine Lorraine Hotel. This week, the lights should come on, when developers with RAL Companies of New York present their proposals to the Planning Commission, and two City Council committees consider bills that would grant the project various exemptions related to loading and curb cuts.

In an interview with PlanPhilly last week, Robert Levine and his son, Spencer, of RAL, said they’ve been talking about the project with city officials and a number of community groups for more than a year. Those discussions have led, so far, to plans for two apartment towers and a supermarket on Ridge Avenue. Preliminary site plans—the Levines stressed that the proposal is in flux—also show a small group of townhomes at the corner of 13th and Wallace streets, to be built in a future phase of construction.

At this point, the plans include approximately 480 apartments with 580 parking spaces, shared between the residents and the supermarket customers. The project would reach a maximum height of 221 feet on the western tower, and contain 83,000 square feet of retail space. The apartments would be placed above the parking structure on the fifth floor, and the developers plan to claim a floor-area bonus for open space on the site. The complex will have 168 bicycle parking spaces.  

The Levines said they’re talking with a number of potential tenants for the supermarket space, but declined to identify potential operators. They said they expect specifics to evolve as they go through the Planning Commission and Civic Design Review process.

Robert Levine said that the company started as an architectural firm in the early 1980s, began doing its own development in the 1990s, and, since 2008, has taken over and completed a number of projects that fell apart because of recession-related financing issues. The group’s work has been focused mainly in New York—they compared the Fairmount Ave. proposal to a residential conversion they did at One Brooklyn Bridge Park—but they’ve also built projects in Colorado, Florida, Puerto Rico, and France.

The 1300 Fairmount project is a sort of takeover too, in slow motion. The last time developers had plans for the site was back in 2006, when developer Michael Treacy proposed an overhaul of the Divine Lorraine Hotel that included the vacant land just east of it. When Treacy went into debt, the property was acquired by Amalgamated Bank of New York, a union-run bank that RAL has partnered with in the past. The bank sold the Divine Lorraine to Eric Blumenfeld, and sought out RAL to develop the rest of the land.

The Levines also said that Alan Greenberger, the deputy mayor for economic development, made it clear that the Divine Lorraine must be respected. They say they’ve set their building back from that corner and organized the site so that the vacant hotel maintains its grandeur.

“From an architectural standpoint, we understand and recognize the importance of the Divine Lorraine to Philadelphia,” Spencer Levine said.

They also said that their priorities at 1300 Fairmount have been responding to needs in the surrounding area, particularly for fresh food, and trying to balance the residential character of the neighborhood with the now-dimmed commercial vibrancy of Ridge Avenue’s past. The entrance to the residential towers will face Fairmount Ave., and the commercial properties will face Ridge.

“It’s noteworthy that we’re really focusing our residential toward the residential fabric …” said Spencer Levine. “We want to make sure that this becomes part of the neighborhood …”

Last week, the state granted Eric Blumenfeld a $3.5 million grant from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP). For the 1300 Fairmount project, RAL is shooting a bit higher: they’ve applied for a RACP grant worth $15 million. Robert Levine said they’d also consider seeking federal New Market Tax Credits.

The site, Levine said, is a “hole in the donut.” It’s been empty for years, and needs significant public support in order to be developed.

“This is an expensive project to build in an area that has certain limitations,” Levine said. “… Yes, we will pursue what is reasonable and appropriate, but it is a necessity here.”

The scale of the proposed development is largely consistent with the CMX-4 zoning of the site. In addition to tax incentives and grants, RAL is seeking a small change to the zoning code that allows a larger curb cut for the supermarket. Council is also considering a bill that would strike part of Melon Street from Park Avenue to Ridge and give it to the developers. The developers will need a special exception from the zoning board for above-ground parking.

The Levines said they’ve been impressed with city officials’ help navigating the project. And those conversations have led to more potential work here: the Nutter administration also convinced RAL to respond to a Request for Proposals for the development of the Festival Pier, on the Central Delaware waterfront.

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