A plan to park a garage next to historic church

Philadelphia developer Dennis Maloomian hopes to build a parking garage near the southern corner of Broad and Arch Streets that would serve visitors to the Convention Center and a proposed new hotel.

But advocates for Arch Street United Methodist  – which would be the garage’s next door neighbor – worry that construction of the parking facility would damage the 144-year-old church before they can finish shoring it up.

The project was presented to the Philadelphia City Planning Commisison at its Tuesday meeting for information only, with Maloomian, of Realen Properties, represented by attorney Peter Kelsen and architect David McHenry.

The church is located on the corner of Broad and Arch Streets. Its Broad Street neighbor is the Masonic Temple. The parking lot next door on Arch Street is where Maloomian hopes to build the garage. The lot is in a commercial zone – C5. That zoning would not allow its construction, Kelsen said. First District Councilman Frank DiCicco has introduced zoning bill 100678 which would change C5 requirements for this parcel. No hearing date has been set.

While this garage would technically be a not-allowed, non-accessory structure, it would provide 530 parking spaces for the expanded Convention Center – the construction of which gobbled up 1,000 spaces –  and a hotel proposed to be built on Arch Street, across from the garage and the church.

The ground floor of the garage on Arch Street would include 16,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, Kelsen said.

Architect McHenry presented what he called a very preliminary design that showed the massing more than anything. He said the shape was “an ice cube, as much as anything.”

McHenry said design decisions have been made with Arch Street Methodist in mind.

While the ground floor on Arch Street, where the retail would be located, hugs the sidewalk, the other floors are set back to preserve the sight lines of the church, he said.

He pointed out that the church facade is stone along the three streets it faces: Broad, Cuthbert and Arch. But the majority of the east side of the building, where the garage would go, “it is common brick,” he said. This material suggests that from the beginning, it was assumed another property would be built close by, and an “urban condition” was anticipated there.

About 20 feet of stone wraps around the east side, McHenry said, and the upper-floors setback would allow this stone to be visible, so that the structure of the church is apparent.

It is anticipated that most people using the garage would walk back to their cars from Broad Street, McHenry said. But the stack containing the stairs and elevators – which is not set back – would be placed closer to Juniper Street, again so as not to detract from the church.

Prior to its demolition in about 1990, the parking lot was a multi-story parking garage for decades, McHenry said. He does not think there was a setback. Traffic in the garage will flow in a double helix and will be one way, he said.

The garage, Kelsen said, is a $27-million project, not including the value of the land. The retail would provide 92 full-time jobs, the garage would provide 10. The building of it would generate “dozens” of construction jobs, he said.

Even as he asked the commission to postpone any action on the bill, Arch Street Methodist Pastor Robin Hynicka said the project “presents the church and the community at large with a great opportunity, especially in this season of economic uncertainty.”

What the 375 members of his congreation want is a chance to talk to the developer about the project in detail, and have their questions and concerns addressed, he said. “The congregation, and other key stake holders, like the Masonic Temple … have not been consulted as to the specific scope and scale of the project,” he said.

A community meeting with the developer will be held at 6:30 p.m., Dec. 6, at the church, Hynicka said.

Hynicka said his church is very concerned about the massing of the proposal, and how it will impact the church’s plans for the future. Under the current proposal, the garage would be built up to the property line on all sides. This, said architect Shawn Evans, who has been guiding the church in restoration, is a big problem.

The biggest concern is that there are stained glass windows three feet from the property line, he said.

“This is a very fragile building,” Evans said. “We are nearing completion of the restoration of the great window on Arch Street, which is 30 feet tall and16 feet wide. We completely disassembeld it. There are numerous additional structural concerns in the building. It is very fragile, and we’re working as fast as we can to address these issues. But construction in immediate proximity to this building is something of great concern.”

Evans said that any distance that can be provided between the garage and the church would be of great assistance to on-going maintenance and continued preservation of the building – which would likely not be finished in the near term.

Commissioner Nancy Rogo Trainer asked if the hotel was a sure thing. “We really want that to be a hotel,” Commission Chair and Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger said. But it is in the idea stages only, he said. When it is a project, it will be back before the planning commission.

Trainer told Kelsen and McHenry that they will need to bring the commission a lot more detail on the proposal before she can decide whether to support it or not. Greenberger agreed it “seriously needs to be architected.”

Greenberger told the developer’s representatives that he knows the site is tight, but he thought it was important for them to look at the issue of just how close the construction gets to its neighbor, and what steps might be taken to mitigate the effects of the vibrations that construction would cause.

Greenberger also said the commission will have to consider the possible future of the site for which the garage is proposed. It is probably not a site that is a good candidate for any of the types of uses generally considered good for center city in any market, let alone the current one, he said. It’s not a suitable site for an office building, and it is too small for a hotel that could be funded right now. A residential building would be the best other option, he said, but it is not in a very residential area.

Contact the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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