View from Penn's Landing
By Thomas J. Walsh
Philadelphia City Council gave final approval Thursday to rezoning sought by developers of the Stamper Square mixed-use project, proposed for the long-barren parcel that once was home to the failed NewMarket in Society Hill.
The measure passed unanimously and without comment, and follows months of public debate and a review from the City Planning Commission, which gave Council an affirmative recommendation for what opponents call “spot zoning.” The ordinance allows the site’s height limit to be lifted and contains a one-year “sunset clause” and project-specific deed restriction, also urged by the Planning Commission that would revoke the new zoning should the development be stalled or changed.
Marc Stein, owner of Philadelphia-based Bridgman Development, said construction should begin in November or December on the 1.5-acre property, located between 2nd, Front, Lombard and Pine streets. Financing for the project has not been finalized, but today’s approval should move that forward, Stein said.
“We have union banks lined up for us,” he said. “Obviously, until we have approvals, we can’t talk realistically with anyone unless we have a project to build.”
Stein is unconcerned about the current global credit crunch, and said a loan for a mixed-use project would be easier to come by than if it were a simple condominium development or a regular hotel. A 25-year deal with Starwood Resorts to operate the planned 150-room boutique hotel expires if ground has not been broken by the end of the year.
The project has been controversial among residents of Society Hill, and apparently split members of the neighborhood’s active civic association. But Richard Lush, a vocal opponent of the project, said Thursday that the division was “a myth.” Lush provided members of Council with more than 20 pages of signatures from neighbors, saying they oppose spot zoning for the site, or any changes to the zoning there. He said it was a matter of historic preservation, despite the lack of a building on the site.
“Our zoning code is what’s being preserved,” he said. “They say nothing is being destroyed, but our zoning is being demolished. The idea of spot zoning coming in and the site going C4, the same as Delaware Avenue with its high-rise condos, it’s antithetical to everything that created the highest residential values in the city.”
Lush said he and several neighborhood lawyers were investigating avenues for lawsuits to halt construction, but provided no other details.
Stein said the opponents have “put a burden on the process for other developers to come into this city. They are wasting taxpayers’ money here. Any time you give a variance to anything, it is [spot zoning]. We went through the process.”
A parking spot for your support
Stein also confirmed a matter that has been a consistent criticism of the project – that a few dozen residents were promised free parking spaces in exchange for their support. “Well, that’s the simple way of putting it,” he said.
Residents with homes adjacent to the old NewMarket were deeded with parking spots within that old structure, he explained. Those residents were approached, “and we said, ‘You’re either for us or against us.’”
“We could’ve challenged the deeds,” Stein said. “We thought it only fair” to reach out to the residents, given the two or three years that construction might be happening right outside their doors. He said 34 residents took the deal of a parking spot in exchange for support, with “four or five” declining.
Completion of Stamper Square, if all goes according to schedule, is slated for late 2010 or early 2011, Stein said. In addition to the hotel, the plan calls for 77 condominium units. The design is a collaboration of the architecture firms H2L2 and Gensler.