Old nautical supply building in Fishtown on its way to a new life

Developer Michael Samschick hopes to revitalize and re-use the Edward Corner Marine Building and fill in the rest of the now-vacant block on the west side of Delaware Avenue at Shackamaxon Street with multi-use development.

He told the Fishtown Neighbors Association’s zoning committee a bit about the concepts he has for the parcel, located across the street from SugarHouse Casino, at a Tuesday night meeting. Samschick said nothing is set in stone yet. But he has concepts and “opportunities.”

Because of the casino, “everybody and their brother will want to be doing all kinds of things,” Samschick said. “I don’t know if you are pro or against the casino, because it’s here, there are opportunities,” he said. “What’s important is for me to get feedback on what your feelings are,” he told the committee during what they call a “screening.”

Samschick showed an architectural rendering of a more-polished, but easily recognizable Corner building. The ground floor holds a restaurant called The Shackamaxon Diner. It appears brightly lit from the inside, and has many windows. The upper floors look little changed from the way the building appears now, with the painted advertising for marine-related wares still visible.

Samschick took a few other buildings that were on the site down earlier this year. At the time, local historian Kenneth Milano said they were of little significance. But the Corner building is another story, Milano said, because it is one of the few remaining vestiges of Fishtown’s former river industry. The empty space where those other buildings once stood is now a lot of flattened earth. People are parking there. Samschick said he is not charging them.

In the space the demolition created to the right of the Corner building, Samschick wants to do several projects in several phases. What they will have in common is retail establishments on the ground floor, with residential or office space above.  One option in the mix is a convenience store. “Parking would be hidden behind,” Samschick told the committee.

Committee member Sarah Thorp, who is also the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation’s manager of the Central Delaware Master Plan – a document that will guide development between Oregon and Allegheny Avenues and I-95 and the river for decades to come – told Samschick that street-level, multi-use development fits in with the concepts of the plan.

After the meeting, Thorp said the preservation of the Corner building was a good thing, too. “We encourage the repurposing of older buildings,” she said.

Out in the hallway, as he awaited the FNA committee’s decision on another matter, Samschick declined to comment further on his ideas for the Corner building and other property on the lot, except to emphasize that everything was conceptual at this point, and it has not yet been decided that a diner would go on the bottom floor. He said further questions should be emailed to his office.

Committee Chairman Micah Hanson advised Samschick to come back to the committee at a community meeting when his plans are more concrete. It is at these meetings where community members vote for or against a project, and that vote is communicated to the appropriate city agency.

Samschick’s company, Core Management Services, sent a letter to people who live near the 1100 block of North Delaware Avenue last week to let them know that the company is considering paving the parking lot and putting plants and a fence around it. The letter states the desire for a community meeting, and gives a number to call. Samschick said the lot would be filled with stores over the long term. FNA zoning told him they could set up a meeting for him, and that has been set for 7:30 pm. Aug. 10 at the Fishtown Rec Center.

Also during the screening and at a community meeting that followed, Samschick spoke of his ongoing plans for the 1000 block just across Shackamaxon Street, which he also owns. Last month, city zoning denied an application made by a tenant of Samschick’s company to run an alcohol-free catering hall with live music on the second floor of 1030 Delaware Avenue. The tenant “has been in the building forever,” Samschick told the committee. And neighbors said they indeed hear music there. Fishtown zoning committee member Matt Karp said the application was a matter of “legalizing” an existing use. Samschick asked for a community meeting on this issue quickly. This will also take place Aug. 10, and the results of the vote will be forwarded to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Now about the matter the committee voted on … at 1080 N. Delaware Avenue – the 130,000 square foot building where SugarHouse Casino has had its offices during construction – Samschick tenant Jesse Munoz wants to open an 1,100-square foot, 25-seat coffee shop/restaurant called Cafe Venice.

Munoz needs a variance because his restaurant will have a take-out component, and since the property falls within the North Delaware Avenue Special Service District, no take-out is allowed. In his original application, Munoz proposed a 10-seat cafe. But in the denial, he said, the city told him his place was too big for just 10 seats, upped it to 25 seats, and then said he needed a second variance for his proposal, because a 25-seat restaurant requires six parking spaces.

In the interim, Samschick provided Munoz with the six spaces, so that variance won’t be required. Munoz said that from his perspective, the parking won’t get much use. “I would say at least 80 percent of our business is going to come from people who work in the building,” he said.

The cafe would be located on the ground floor, and there would be entrances from both the inside for people who work in the building and from the outside for those who come from elsewhere. Pizza and panini would be among the menu items. There would be free wi-fi.

“We hope that it turns out to be an area with a lot of other retail centers that will complement this,” Munoz said. More businesses will be coming to the 1080 building, which was recently renovated, but Cafe Venice would be the only restaurant, Munoz said.

Munoz said he hopes to open in September. That’s also when the big neighbor across the street – SugarHouse – intends to open.

Operating hours would be 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. for starters, Munoz said during his presentation. But if the casino brings later traffic his way, he might keep it open later, eventually.

No alcohol would be served at first, Munoz said during his presentation, but he would like to offer some alcohol – wine perhaps – in the future. Some residents did not like the alcohol possibility. Samschick, who was sitting in the back, piped up that he was willing to make no alcohol a condition of approval. Zoning committee members said an application for an alcohol license would bring the project back before them.

The community narrowly voted to recommend that the Zoning Board of Adjustment grant the variance, 7-6. The three local votes – cast by people who live within 500 feet of the project – were all no votes.

Votes are cast anonymously, but community concerns expressed during the meeting revolved around parking and trash – mostly trash.  PlanPhilly stepped out for part of that discussion to try to get comment from Samschick on his various plans. But Karp said concerns came from residents of Allen Street – the street that runs behind the project. “They were upset about the way the trash is being handled now, and they are not excited to have more of it from the cafe,” Karp said.

The detailed results of the vote will be forwarded to the ZBA, which will hold a hearing on the cafe at 10 am July 27.

If the desire to open a cafe in Fishtown is any sort of economic recovery indicator, there is good news indeed.

The community voted 21-1 in favor of a zoning variance for the Lola Bean, a coffee shop that Erica Zito and Mary Button hope to open at 1325 Frankford Ave., between Thompson and Master, near to the bier garten Stephen Starr is working on. The one no vote was a local vote, but so were 10 of the yes votes. In addition to coffee and the like, Zito and Button plan to offer pastries and take-out lunch items, but no cooking would be done on site.

Levin Abedinaj told the Fishtown zoning committee in a screening session that he, too, would like to open a cafe, at 258 E. Girard. His intent is to offer coffee and coffee-based drinks, tea and packaged foods

He doesn’t yet have a name for the place, but it would have 30 to 35 seats and be open from 7 a.m. until midnight. His attorney, Roger Perry, said that Abedinaj would like to open “as soon as he gets approvals.”

Abedinaj also needs a variance to allow takeout. He will be back before the Fishtown zoning committee on Aug. 3.

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com.

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