Jan. 19, 2010
By Thomas J. Walsh
Two projects involving condominiums in Society Hill and apartments in Northern Liberties are moving forward. Both developments received different stages of approval at Tuesday’s scheduled monthly meeting of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.
The long-awaited and at-times controversial Stamper Square condo and hotel scheme from developer Marc Stein got an OK for an official plan of development for a 15-story tower on the vacant site of the failed NewMarket retail spot (and, later, the Will Smith “W” hotel that never was). If successful, the building, at Headhouse Square, 410 S. Front Street, could serve as a high-end anchor – or at least a high-profile link – between the declining eastern end of the South Street district and Society Hill. The 150-room luxury Starwood hotel would have accompanying retail spaces and a restaurant. There would be 77 condos and underground parking for 350 cars.
This was the second time around for a Stamper Square POD – the first was in August 2008. Included in that 2008 POD was a one-year sunset clause that was renewed in April 2009. The renewal was allowed because Stein, like developers everywhere, could not possibly acquire investment financing at the time. The new sunset expires on June 30 of this year. The project received approval from the Philadelphia Historical Commission in November 2008.
The refreshed presentation Tuesday, with an affirmative recommendation from the Planning Commission staff, included up-to-date site plans, drawings, elevations and renderings; a “narrative” of the development’s uses; and a review of its deed restriction.
The staff’s notes to the commissioners say the new POD is “substantially similar” to the 2008 version and would lock Stein into the new agreement.
“This was done to ensure that the re-zoning of the site would not result in an inferior development,” the staff wrote. “The down side is that a POD is, in effect, a master plan for the site, so even minor changes will result in a formal City Planning Commission hearing. Additionally, tying a particular plan to a zoning change bill may result in legal spot zoning challenges.”
It’s unclear what sort of financing arrangements, if any, Stein currently has in place. “We were ready to close December 15th,” he said at the hearing. “We’ll wait and see what happens today.”
Stein was responding to a question from attorney William Ewing, representing Society Hill resident Kevin Boylan, who lives on the 100 block of Lombard Street (adjacent to the Stamper site). Ewing attempted to question Stein and the commissioners as if in a court of law, engaging in an awkward back-and-forth with Commission Chairman Joe Syrnick. He asked for the hearing to be continued several times.
As has been the case with every Planning Commission hearing regarding Stamper Square, Society Hill neighbors and civic leaders lined up for the public comment period to object.
“The inappropriate scale [of the project] jumps out at me,” said Paul Boni, a private attorney and resident. “This is a neighborhood that was awarded by the American Planning Association as one of the best planned neighborhoods in the country, just a year or two ago. To approve something this out of scale I think is arbitrary and capricious.”
Commissioner Patrick Eiding seemed to grow impatient with what he perceived as objections repeated many times over the last two years. “These kinds of thing are due to the times,” Eiding said, regarding a lack of financing to launch construction of Stamper Square. He cited the second Cira Center tower near 30th Street Station, saying that even that development, which is “one of the best projects this board could look at, [is] not being financed” either.
“The more that we hold up development for frivolous reasons – if the thing has been fully vetted by the Planning Commission people and also by this board – then I think somebody ought to come up to this microphone with something new,” Eiding said.
“This is highly inappropriate,” said John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. “There is no need for you to be pushing this through today.”
Society Hill Civic Association President Rosanne Loesch also weighed in against the development, echoing others who said the Commission – again – did not give the public enough notice about the hearing.
Said Syrnick: “This was a tough one last time, and it’s a tough one this time.” The Commission approved the updated POD unanimously.
Upriver, a different story
Meanwhile, on the other side of I-95 and north along the Delaware River, the Waterview Grande project to convert two 80-year-old concrete cold storage facilities into apartments seems to be moving along at a decidedly snappier pace.
The Northern Liberties project by Core Realty, with 192 planned units, got the nod from the Commission in December for “conceptual approval.” The process was speeded up because of financial conditions that Core Realty’s Michael Samschick said had to be met by Dec. 31 to satisfy his lender. Only a month later, Waterview Grande appears on track, and the Commission checked off on its POD on Tuesday.
Plans call for completely stripping down the existing eight-story buildings at Brown Street and North Delaware Avenue. About 47,670 square feet of retail and commercial space will mix with a café with outdoor seating and about 200 parking spaces.
Both Stamper Square and Waterview Grande have been designed by Philadelphia-based H2L2 Architects.
Logan Square, Center City neighborhood plans
Planning Commission senior staffer Richard Redding presented information-only guidelines for official neighborhood plans on behalf of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) and the Center City Residents Association (CCRA).
The guidelines would apply to all Philadelphia neighborhood plans prepared by organizations other than the City Planning Commission, with the objective of improving the coordination between community-based plans and the city’s own policies and resources, and to “ensure that efforts are made to include community residents in the planning process.”
The Planning Commission also wants to ensure that hired consultants using public funds for such plans are selected using competitive bidding procedures. Accepted plans would be posted on the Planning Commission’s Web site.
The LSNA currently has a petition posted to its Web site, seeking 100 signatures that urge the Planning Commission to adopt its plan and recommendations, which the organization calls an “important prototype.”
SOPs for PODs?
Speaking of plans of development, the commission was to consider adoption of a new, formal set of regulations for POD approvals. The purpose of the action was born out of the necessity to regulate development within the Central Delaware Riverfront Overlay District, which was adopted by City Council in 2009. The new rules and regulations, though, would apply to plans of development throughout the city. They were introduced as a bill by Councilman Frank DiCicco.
There was only one problem, public attendees told the Commission. Nobody else has been able to review them. Several high-profile figures familiar to the Planning Commission objected vigorously during the public comment period. Among them were Gallery; Boni, who represents various community groups and anti-casino advocates; and former Planning Commission chair Craig Schelter, on behalf of his Developers Workshop group.
“We always have heard during campaign season and … in press conferences – openness, transparency, public involvement, and inclusion of neighborhood interests,” Boni said. “In that spirit, I hope no action is taken today.”
“This is truly an historic event, because I think that this is the first time ever, in a public forum, that Paul Boni and I have agreed on anything,” joked Schelter. “We have serious, serious concerns – the same ones which Paul just mentioned.” He added that such a set of new regulations needs specific design review standards – he saw none from a copy he received two hours earlier – as well as an OK from the city’s Law Department.
“Any action today is completely in violation of any reasonable public policy,” Gallery said.
All three men are well-connected and plugged into city planning and zoning issues, and all three said that had not even heard about the issue until Tuesday. Greenberger conferred with a city attorney during the public remarks and acknowledged the problem, which involved a Feb. 16 deadline. He suggested taking the action back to DiCicco and requesting an extension. Failing that, there would have to be a special meeting of the Planning Commission.
Commissioner Natalia Olson-Urtecho made a motion to table discussion of approval until further notice. It was seconded and approved unanimously by the other commissioners.
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