Roxborough residents watch Wendy’s restaurant rise at historic neighborhood site

The corner of Ridge and Roxoborough avenues has been the center of controversy December 2012, when the historic Bunting House, located at 5901 Ridge Ave., was razed in the face of community protest.

Then, construction began last month on a Wendy’s restaurant — a project neighbors have been fighting from its conception. 

“This is not what we had hoped for this property,” said Don Simon, president of the Central Roxborough Civic Assosciation. For the past three years the CRCA, and much of Roxborough and its surrounding neighborhoods have been battling the property owners — brothers and developers Frank and Anthony Giovannone — who announced the possibility of a Wendy’s at the property in March 2013.

In Septembers 2013, city officials confirmed that the developers were seeking to locate a Wendy’s on the historic corner in Roxborough.

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The news was immediately met with mixed feelings among community members. Within days of the announcement, a Roxborough Wendy’s Facebook page touted 250 “likes” (to date it has 2,305) and a website created by the Giovannone brothers — now defunct — said, “This project is being designed with its neighbors in mind — respect for the community and the environment is a priority.”

The site also claimed that the new restaurant would create 50 jobs and bring thousands of tax dollars to the city.

But for many, this wasn’t enough. A November 2013 NewsWorks article chatted with six community voices regarding the possible Wendy’s.

At that time, John Boyce, a Roxborough native and co-founder of the Friends of Gorgas Park expressed his opposition.

“The Wendy’s project replaces the historic Bunting House that stood at Ridge and Roxborough Avenue for 150 years and was part of Roxborough’s unique small town legacy. What a lousy, unseemly tradeoff — taking a proud, essential part of Roxborough’s history, razing it to the ground, and before there is time for bereavement, throwing up a dangerous drive-thru fast food restaurant that will threaten the health and safety of schoolchildren, families, walkers and bicyclists,” he said. 

Boyce even organized and paid for a bus to take Wendy’s opposers to the Zoning Board of Adjustments hearing where the Giovannone brothers were seeking permission to build a drive-thru on the property. At the time, the property was zoned for commercial mixed use, and in order to build a drive-thru, a special exception had to be granted. Wendy’s developers said from the onset that they would not build the Wendy’s without the drive-thru.

In what seemed like a victory for the Wendy’s opposers, in January 2014, Julia Chapman, chair of the ZBA denied developers the special exception for Wendy’s to build a drive-thru window on the already congested corner of Ridge and Roxborough.

But the battle wasn’t over. An appeal was filed to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, and in August 2014 Judge Nina Wright Padilla overturned the ZBA’s decision. Padilla provided no specific reason behind her rationale.

Soon after, the CRCA took their next punch. They filed an appeal of the Common Pleas decision to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. According to Hal Schirmer, attorney representing the CRCA, the Roxborough community stood a strong chance to win in Commonwealth Court, stating that the court would base its decision on the actual merit of the case rather than the decision of the lower court. Schirmer announced at the CRCA’s monthly meeting in September 2014, that the appeal process would take some time — possibly up to a year.

The community waited with bated breath.

That is, until several weeks ago when construction vehicles began rolling onto the fenced-off property at 5901 Ridge Ave. Then came the sign announcing a forthcoming Wendy’s.

On the CRCA Facebook page, President Don Simon said: “Regarding the construction activity at 5901 Ridge. Wendy’s has decided to go ahead with the construction. It appears that our appeal was dismissed from Commonwealth Court on a technicality last November and one of our members just found out about it last week. Our attorney [Schirmer] is working on re-filing but there are still a lot of questions we don’t have answers to.”

Hal Schirmer has not responded to multiples requests for comments.

Jose Casalina has lived in Roxborough with his family for almost 10 years and has stood in fervent opposition of the Wendy’s.

“As frustrating as this is for me to understand, I am more frustrated that the City of Philadelphia will now have a fast-food drive-thru establishment in the middle of a neighborhood’s main street in Roxborough. We now have Philly Court’s Judge Nina Wright Padilla to thank for creating a precedent for the rest of the fast food giants to follow,” said Casalina.

Others are letting out a sigh of relief. Roxborough resident Laurie Moyer Capizzi has been in support of the Roxborough Wendy’s and said she is glad to see construction finally under way. Capizzi said she attended many CRCA meetings and hearings and has heard the community’s complaints regarding trash, safety and traffic.

For Capizzi, these reasons were not convincing.

“We need strong business to brighten up Ridge Avenue,” Capizzi said. “If more people were enjoying Ridge Avenue, it would be a safer place. Hopefully Wendy’s will give people a reason to walk to Ridge Avenue again.”

Simon said that while the CRCA is looking into further legal options, it is unlikely there is anything that can be done to stop the Wendy’s at this point.

“It would have been fair for us to at least take our stand. To not have the case heard at all in Commonwealth court is disappointing. This has been a story of corporate bullying. Wendy’s did this because they can. Nobody wants a building that looks like it belongs on the off-ramp of the interstate in our neighborhood, but I’m afraid we’re stuck with it.”

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