Sidewalk encroachments for two restaurant projects get planning commission nod, but spur philosophical discussion

Wolfgang Puck wants to open a restaurant at the Kimmel Center.

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission gave its approval to zoning legislation that Kimmel Center reps say paves the way for that to happen.

Streets Bill 110436, now headed to city council, allows Kimmel to push the boundaries of its building onto four feet of the Spruce Street sidewalk, leaving 12 feet unobstructed. The encroachment would be 191-feet long, and would also allow for a new Innovation Studio space and other improvements.

The restaurant would offer both casual and more upscale menu options, said architect David Hincher of KieranTimberlake. The expansion of the building would allow the restaurant to seat 120 patrons, a number architect Hincher said is needed to make the eatery financially feasible.  But as much as the seats are needed to make the restaurant’s numbers work, Hincher said, the primary reason for the encroachment and its large glass wall is to “address the fundamental problems of getting people into the building” and to “activate the street.” The restaurant would be opening in space once occupied by the failed giftshop.

The large glass wall could be opened during nice weather said Kimmel Center, Inc. Facilities Manager George Shaeffer, and the encroachment also includes an overhang. There would not be dining tables outdoors, he said.

Shaeffer said the Kimmel had a second-floor restaurant in the past. It did not have sufficient visibility from the street, he said, and potential patrons couldn’t tell if it was open or not. It has not been open all season.

This bill and a second street encroachment bill involving another restaurant project at 600 North Broad Street generated a good bit of discussion. Developer Eric Blumenfeld wants to build a new vestibule and ramp on the south side of Mount Vernon Street, between Broad and North 15th streets. The former Wilkie Buick site is expected to be home to eateries and other projects operated by some of Philadelphia’s biggest names in food: Stephen Starr, Marc Vetri, and caterer Joe Volpe. Streets bill 110311, which the commission also eventually approved, applies to Marc Vetri’s restaurant.

No commissioner was critical of either project overall. But several questioned the wisdom of allowing a private development to grow onto public sidewalk space. “We’re seeing more and more of these,” said Vice Chairman Joe Syrnick when the Kimmel project, which went first, was on the table. “I wonder if there’s some new game-plan here, to enlarge your space, encroach on the sidewalk.” He said the trend was troubling.

Commissioner Nancy Rogo-Trainer agreed. “I’m really concerned about the precedent here,” she said.

Commission Chair and deputy mayor for planning and development Alan Greenberger said he was surprised to learn the Spruce Street sidewalk was only 18 feet wide.  “It seems so huge. But that’s in part because it is so dead.”

He said there are physical limitations inside the current space, and the sidewalk outside is so desolate now, and so he favored giving the project the benefit of the doubt.

Rogo-Trainer was the only “no” vote on the Kimmel bill. Syrnick joined her in saying no to the Wilkie Buick restaurant project bill, but he told the development representatives that the presentation was much better and clearer than it was last month, when the commission tabled the bill until more information came forward.

The Blumenfeld team changed its request as well – rather than a 47-foot-long encroachment along the length of one side of the restaurant for a ramp and vestibule with seating, the team now seeks a 22-foot-long encroachment, still seven feet into the sidewalk, which it said was needed for a wheelchair to have enough room to turn around considering the stair placement.

Greenberger said that this spot on Broad was also dead, and this proposal, which was “kind of handsome” would really help liven it up. He said he saw that these encroachments might “be a problem for us sometime in the future,” but “personally, I’m willing to deal with that then.”

Rogo-Trainer, he joked, would then be the one saying “I told you so.”

While not dependent on the bill that’s headed to city council, the Kimmel representatives talked about other pending physical improvements that are designed to bring more people – and money – to the Kimmel.

These renovations are part of a larger group of changes for the Kimmel center designed to bring more life into its underutilized public spaces. A state grant has been received to make changes to the Dorrance H. Hamilton Garden, Shaeffer said.  The garden, which sits atop of Perelman Theater, is now encircled by a glass half-wall.  Hincher said the plan includes enclosing it with glass and doing accoustical work to keep any noise generated within from intruding on patrons of musical performances elsewhere at the center.  Currently, he said, even people talking up there can disrupt performances, which is why the Kimmel must turn down most of its event rental opportunities.  Weddings and other events can only happen on days when no performance is going on in any other space, he said, and that’s not very often.

When events do happen, Wolfgang Puck – the venue’s caterer – does the cooking.

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