Proposal for 3,000-patron live music venue in Fishtown heads to City Council

Zoning legislation that would allow developer David Grasso to transform a 7,600 square foot warehouse into a live music venue/performance space at Richmond and Beach streets in Fishtown is headed for a city council committee hearing with the planning commission’s recommendation for approval.

Grasso and his team told planning commissioners that the venue, which would be operated by Live Nation, could hold up to 3,000 people and would host bands, comedy shows, live theater and corporate events.

Michael Grozier, a Live Nation executive vice president who used to live in Philadelphia, said the prospect of the new place was “especially exciting” for him.

Tayyib Smith, founder of Little Giant Media and a music promoter, said he was psyched, too, calling the proposal a “world class venue” that would help make Philadelphia a “first tier market.”  Smith, one of several people who spoke in favor of the project, said that the area where the project would be built could see a new injection of life, and that currently, the area was someplace where “I wouldn’t allow my worst enemy to go.”

Not everyone is thrilled with Grasso’s plan, though.

While representatives from Olde Richmond Civic Association and Fishtown Neighbors Association didn’t speak at the hearing, the commission has received letters of opposition from them.

FNA voted against the proposal last September. FNA President Neil Brecher said in a Wednesday phone interview that Fishtowners weren’t aware the zoning bill was going to be on the PCPC agenda until it was too late to organize.

At the FNA meeting last fall, residents were concerned that this venue was going to be a nightclub, and that drunken patrons who parked in their neighborhoods would be whooping it up as they headed back to their cars in the wee hours.  They also had design concerns, and didn’t like how far back from the road the venue would sit, and that there would be parking in front. Brecher said Wednesday that a big concern is the timing of the project. While Grasso and some commissioners noted the new I-95 Girard Avenue ramp would let patrons exit the highway very close to the venue, Brecher said he was not certain that the on-going PennDOT roadwork wouldn’t have motorists avoiding that part of I-95 and traveling through the neighborhoods.

In addition to running Grasso Holdings, Grasso owns music company FOF Entertainment Group. He promised Fishtowners last fall that there would be no DJ-only nights, and that concerts would almost all end by 11 p.m. Drinking would be confined to one area in the venue, he said. And plenty of parking would be offered on site.

Grasso and his team spoke of parking to the commission Tuesday. The developer will have 650 paid parking spaces, which he said would handle all patrons for shows that aren’t sell-outs. For those sell-out shows, Grasso said he anticipates the overflow would park behind the venue on Cumberland Street. He told the commission that in response to comments at an earlier, information-only planning commission meeting, the plans have been adjusted to include a second entrance facing Cumberland, so that patrons wouldn’t have to walk the whole way around the building. The team said they did not anticipate patrons would be walking through the neighborhood. And they said there were no houses close to the site of the proposed venue.

Commissioners asked about the content of the letters from the community organizations, and Planning Commission Executive Director Gary Jastrzab summed them up. “Both groups are concerned that patrons of the facility would park in their neighborhoods, would approach the site through their neighborhoods, and after events, would wander through their neighborhoods doing any variety of social misdeeds,” he said. “I don’t think (planning commission staff) was convinced of that.” Staff recommended approval of the zoning bill, which was introduced by First District Councilman Frank DiCicco.

The bill would lift the Delaware Avenue Overlay, which bans nightclubs, from the site. DiCicco was also the overlay’s sponsor. Grasso attorney Ronald Patterson said the project wouldn’t be a nightclub, but fell under the code definition of one.

One other person spoke against the plan – an attorney, representing the owners of nearby land that was once the spot of the Pinnacle casino proposal, said his clients were concerned the project would limit access to their properties.

Smith asked the attorney what plans the property owners had for the land, since it has been sitting vacant for a very long time.

Vice-Chairman Joseph Syrnick said that was a very good question, but one that would have to remain rhetorical. Syrnick said that while public transportation is nearby, he expected most patrons would drive. “The connections there are about as good as you can get with I-95,” he said.

The vote almost didn’t happen. Four of the nine commissioners must be present for a quorum, and as the meeting stretched on for about four hours, some who were present had to leave. Grasso’s team and those who had come to speak were not happy when Syrnick told him that the commission could not vote.

“What do you mean?” asked attorney Patterson. “We have a Rules Committee hearing on May 4?”

Syrnick had never dealt with such a situation before. After consulting with an attorney, he said the testimony could go on, and that while the commission couldn’t take an official vote, it could still vote, and the results of that vote, plus staff’s recommendation, could go to the Rules Committee. But then one commissioner came back, and so the vote was official: 4-0.

FNA’s Brecher said that his organization will talk to Grasso to see if any changes have or will be made to the plan  that would merit FNA taking another vote on the project. 

“After we talk to them, we will likely compose another letter explaining our viewpoint and our recommendations for the project” to city council, he said.

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