Rules Committee recommends zoning change for Blue Horizon hotel site

A bill that would change the zoning designation of the legendary Blue Horizon building on North Broad Street was amended and reported out of City Council’s Committee on Rules with a favorable recommendation Thursday afternoon. The former boxing ring is the site of the proposed Hotel Blue, an eight-story, 87-room hotel with a restaurant and nightclub.

The bill, which will be placed on the calendar for the next meeting of City Council, changes the zoning designation of the parcel from C2 to C4.

The Committee meeting began with a discussion of spot zoning, as Planning Commission staffer Martin Gregorski testified in favor of adding an amendment changing the zoning designation of the entire block bounded by Broad, Master, Carlisle and Thompson streets rather than just the individual parcel. Gregorski said changing the whole block’s designation would “stop any possible spot zoning allegations before they start.”

In effect, though, Gregorski simply raised the allegation himself.

“‘Spot zoning’ is a term you use when you want to put a negative spin on [a development],” said Councilman Jim Kenney.

Kenney also said that just because the Planning Commission wanted to change the designation of the entire block, the purpose of the zoning change remains the same, which is to allow for the development of the Hotel Blue. He further questioned why the Commission would support rezoning the whole area, where there are no additional development proposals. And he questioned whether the community supported the change.

“Doesn’t what you’re suggesting take community input out of it?” Kenney said.

Gregorski responded that rezoning the whole block is “a more comprehensive approach” to encouraging redevelopment in the area.

Councilman Bill Greenlee, Chairman of the Rules Committee, disagreed.

“The Planning Commission appears to be fixing something that isn’t a problem,” Greenlee said.

Initially, Gregorski testified that Council President Darrell Clarke, the bill’s sponsor, did not support the whole-block amendment. But Clarke, who came into the meeting several minutes late, said that he would support it.

The project’s proponents—representatives of Mosaic Development Partners and Orens Brothers, Inc.—said the amendment made no difference to them. They briefed the Committee on the details of the development and took questions about parking amenities. Part of the group’s strategy involves using mechanical lifts to increase the number of parking spaces in the vicinity of the hotel. Councilman Bill Green alerted them that mechanical lifts are outlawed in the zoning code, a fact of which the group was apparently unaware. They did assure the committee that they would meet the required number of parking spaces even without the lifts.

After the developers testified, the Committee heard testimony from Vivian VanStory, who lives on a portion of Thompson Street that would be affected by the Planning Commission’s proposed amendment. She chastised the Planning Commission for failing to engage the community before suggesting the amendment to the bill.

Gregorski said he wanted to get the Councilman’s take on the amendment before meeting with the community.

“We didn’t want to worry people with rezonings that weren’t necessarily going to happen,” Gregorski said.

After Clarke heard VanStory’s testimony, he decided that the Planning Commission should in fact meet with the community before he would amend the bill to change the zoning designation of the whole block.

“We caught you off-guard by agreeing with you,” Clarke said to Gregorski.

Gregorski agreed publicly to hold a Planning Commission meeting with neighborhood residents.

After the public hearing, there was a delay in the Committee meeting of about 15 minutes while members of Council and their staff finalized the language of the bill.

For those keeping track at home:

  • the bill as introduced would change the zoning designation only for the parcel of the proposed Hotel Blue from C2 to C4;
  • the Planning Commission testified in favor of adding an amendment changing the zoning designation of the entire surrounding block;
  • Councilman Clarke surprised everyone by supporting that amendment and (temporarily) adding it to the bill;
  • Vivian VanStory objected to the amendment, and to the absence of community involvement in crafting it;
  • Councilman Clarke reversed course, had the amendment removed, and asked Gregorski to set up a community meeting.

In the end, the bill passed out of committee much as it was introduced, with a few technical changes to its language. Committee members offered general words of encouragement to the developers as they redevelop the building into a hotel, which they hope to open early in 2014.

Earlier in the day, Council passed a bill authorizing the Redevelopment Authority to use bond proceeds from the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative to acquire a parcel at 4700 Parkside Avenue. The parcel is proposed to be used for an expansion of Discovery Charter School.

According to Zoning Board of Adjustment records from November of last year, the School applied for use variance permits, “for a school with accessory signs and the creation of 71 accessory off-street parking spaces (including 3 handicap spaces) within an existing structure.” Representatives of Discovery Charter School did not immediately return calls seeking comment on plans for the parcel.

Councilman Clarke held Bill No. 120150, which would approve the redevelopment contract with Aquinas Realty for the redevelopment of the former YWCA at 2017-2023 Chestnut Street. Aquinas plans to turn the building into a 12-story apartment complex. Clarke said the bill was held because the group still needs to produce an Equal Opportunity Plan. He expects to receive that plan in time to call the bill up in the next meeting of Council.

Contact the reporter at jaredbrey@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.