By Matt Blanchard
Call it a deluxe ruckus: Bitterly divided residents of tony Society Hill look poised to reject a luxury hotel development slated for Head House Square.
Named “Stamper Square,” the plan envisions a 150-room boutique hotel operated by Starwood Resorts, and another 77 condominium units, housed in two towers on the vacant NewMarket site. Unable to agree this week, the Society Hill Civic Association said it will decide on Wednesday night whether to oppose the project.
While most neighborhoods might find it hard to reject a $300- to $400-per-night hotel with condos selling for more than $1 million apiece, opponents have their reasons. After 10 months of negotiations with developer Marc Stein, it is the building’s 15-story height that has brought the matter to a crisis.
Because it exceeds the area’s 35-foot height limit, the 166-foot Stamper Square needs Civic Association support if it hopes to secure a zoning variance. Stamper's chances were hurt when the board's zoning subcommittee voted 10 to 3 against.
Should Stamper go down, it will be the latest in a long line of failures at NewMarket, a 1.5 acre site that appears to need an exorcist as much as it does a developer.
Named for a shopping mall that struggled almost from its opening day in 1975 until its demolition in 2002, the NewMarket site is today a large hole. Neighbors rejected a supermarket for the site in 1996 but signed onto a plan by actor Will Smith to build a hip “W” hotel there in 2000, a plan that fell apart when the hotel backed out the following year (Another W plan is now slated for 12th and Arch).
Stein, developer of the proposed Bridgeman’s View skyscraper in Northern Liberties, made what he said was a final effort to win over Society Hill at a hot-tempered meeting in the Old Pine Church on Wednesday night. Over 100 people were in attendance.
“It’s been a long ten months,” Stein told the crowd. “Either I walk after [this meeting], or I come back and build something else.”
That something else, he suggested, was a by-right development that would not require the neighborhood approval (Read: it will fill every available inch of the zoning envelope and might be ugly).
The ensuing debate revealed a neighborhood profoundly alienated from its bustling neighbor, South Street (called a “garbage pit” by one speaker), and fiercely suspicious of developer promises.
It also revealed a minor identity crisis:
Is Society Hill a full part of Center City that should welcome wealthy hotel visitors and high-density urban living? Or is it a strictly low-rise urban village that must guard against tall buildings even on a vacant lot?
“We are almost like a village within a city,” argued board member Benita Langsdorf, who opposed the project for violating height limits. “We moved here because we are a different kind of community.”
Paul Levy, head of the Center City District, adduced the example of Ed Bacon’s Society Hill Towers to defend the project:
“This neighborhood began with high rises. It was always designed to be both modern and historic … And it’s the high density buildings that bring the people,” Levy said. “Some would like to see townhouses, but it’s been 20 years, and where are those townhouses?”
A “potential treasure”
Design-wise, Stamper Square is a collaboration of two architecture firms, locally-based H2L2 and the global giant Gensler. Advocates say its genius lies in the site plan, which places the 15 story towers on Front Street where renderings suggest they will not be visible from most locations in Society Hill.
That site plan also includes a mid-block passage – inspired by Ed Bacon’s greenways – between 2nd and Front. Stein has offered to make a sculpture garden of the passage, which appears to be the hotel’s main entrance.
All 412 parking spaces will be in an underground garage, and stalls will be set aside for the project’s adjacent neighbors. The actual units are contained in two conjoined towers, glass with irregularly spaced vertical panels, rising from a brick base.
Thirty nearby neighbors signed onto a statement of support for the project, calling the proposed passageway “a potential treasure in our community”. Others hailed the project as a high-class balance to the déclassé clientele of South Street.
Doubts about the project came from the board’s own zoning committee.
Paul Boni, noted anti-casino lawyer, argued there was only reason why Society Hill was being asked to consider so large a project: The owners paid too much for the site and want to recoup.
According to The Inquirer, the Chawla brothers of Sant Development bought the site from Will Smith in 2005 for $10.5 million – three times what Smith had paid just five years before.
Boni extolled the neighborhood’s 35-foot height limit as a “blanket of protection,” and accused Stein of simply bluffing when he said 15 stories was his final offer.
“He’s already come down,” Boni said. “What confidence do you have that this developer can’t come down further? ... We don’t want to kill the project. We want to give the civic association the ammunition to bargain harder.”
A flawed process?
In the end, board president Richard de Wyngaert declared that his conscience would not allow him to vote on the changing project after four hours of wandering argument. By a close vote, the vote on Stamper Square was postponed to Wednesday.
For board member Steve Weixler, who favored the project, the Stamper Square affair is one more reason why the city should take planning decisions out of the hands of community groups and return that power to trained professionals in the City Planning Department.
Calling the evening’s debate “subjective, personal, unfounded and unfriendly,” Weixler said proponents who had cheered for the project at 6:30 p.m. had by 10 p.m. grown tired and left.
“Eventually people got so tired they desert the process.” He said.
“This underscores the need for government and serious planning to step up in this city… Government needs to stop this process.”