City Council is considering whether to turn a block of Bodine Street into private property so Finnegan's Wake, a Northern Liberties bar and catering hall, can expand onto it.
The legislation, introduced by outgoing First District Councilman Frank DiCicco, calls for the city to vacate Bodine between Spring Garden and Green Street. The proposal has met with objections from Northern Liberties residents, who fear the expansion would bring additional noise. They also question the propriety of turning over a public street to a private enterprise.
DiCicco is a Democrat, and Finnegan's Wake owner Mike Driscoll is a Democratic Committeeman. When asked whether DiCicco introduced the bill because of Driscoll's involvement in the Democratic Party, DiCicco spokesman Sean McMonagle said the two facts were coincidence. “Frank introduces bills on behalf of people all the time. (Driscoll) is a businessman in the area.” Driscoll also said his status with the Democrats is “completely unrelated to the legislation.”
Driscoll said that while his plan calls for striking this section of Bodine Street, it would remain open to pedestrians, whether or not they were Finnegan's customers. “We would restore (the street) as a walkway and a courtyard,” he said.
While Bodine is a public street today, it would have been impossible for a car to travel on it between Spring Garden and Green Street on a recent visit. There was a large dumpster blocking the way. The narrow street is big enough for one vehicle - as evidenced by the van parked behind the dumpster – but two vehicles could not pass each other, and there is no one-way sign delineating the flow of traffic.
Northern Liberties Neighbors Association President Matt Ruben said the dumpster has long been a frustrating fixture on the street. Its existence shows that the bar/catering hall has been using a public street for private use for a long time, he said.
Driscoll said the dumpster is for Finnegan's Wake use. But he said this section of Bodine Street has not been used by cars for much longer than Finnegan's has been around.
“When we bought the building in the early '90s, it was a casket factory,” he said. “There were three loading docks (on Bodine Street) and it was used for loading by the Standard Casket Company. It was an industrial use, and they were the only folks using that street.”
If cars had ever used that block of Bodine Street, Driscoll said he would have petitioned the city streets department to make them stop. “It would be very dangerous” because cars on Bodine and Spring Garden would have a hard time seeing each other, he said.
These days, the dumpster isn't only used by Finnegan's. It also takes refuse from a construction project across Bodine from the bar – the new Philadelphia Democratic City Committee headquarters.
Driscoll wouldn't describe his expansion plans beyond the courtyard and walkway idea, saying things are now in flux, since he and Northern Liberties residents are trying to find a solution that would alleviate their concerns while allowing him to meet his objectives for the business. While the bill has been on city council's agenda for final adoption, DiCicco hasn't called it up for a vote, specifically to give Driscoll and area residents time to reach a compromise. The bill was not called for a vote at council's second-to-last meeting Thursday.
“Out of respect to them, it's best to leave it at 'things are under discussion,'” Driscoll said. Progress is being made, he said, and he expects a compromise will be reached “in upcoming weeks.” NLNA's Ruben didn't say much about the latest negotiations, either. “The recent meeting was productive but nothing has yet been worked out,” he wrote in an email. “We remain open to further meetings and dialogue.”
Ruben did say that when Finnegan's came to the NLNA zoning committee, they were proposing a “three-story, outdoor bar.” About a month ago, the zoning committee voted unanimously to oppose the bill, because there was unanimous opposition from the neighbors who attended, and others who contacted NLNA separate from the meeting. “The existing operations of the bar, to many neighbors, are a nuisance already,” he said. “It is understandable that they think the addition of a three-story, outdoor bar would only make it worse.”
McMonagle said there's no urgency in this situation, so if a compromise isn't reached before DiCicco's last council meeting on Dec. 15, "I don't think Frank has to move the bill." If he doesn't, Driscoll would need another council person to re-introduce the legislation, because all council business not acted on by the last meeting of the session dies on the floor.
DiCicco did not seek re-election. Since council mostly leaves it to each member to introduce any legislation pertaining to their district, the likely candidate to introduce a similar bill is his successor, Mark Squilla. Squilla, who has been watching the bill's progress, said he would only introduce a similar bill if Driscoll and NLNA reach an agreement that includes abandoning the street. "I would not introduce it without the neighbors supporting it," he said.
Ruben said he understands that Finnegan's wants to expand the catering and events side of the business, and a major goal of the project is to create a way for people coming to a catered event to have an entrance separate from the bar entrance.
“That's reasonable,” Ruben said. “But they don't need to take over a public street to have that. There may be a way to give them another entrance that doesn't reduce the peace of mind, and quality of life of the neighbors.”
Any proposal including the striking of Bodine Street from the city street map is “a non-starter,” Ruben said. Residents are “offended at the very idea of a private business getting a free piece of land for no good reason,” he said. But beyond that, they see this bill as the only point along the road to an expansion of Finnegan's where they can have a say on what happens. With the perceived political connections Finnegan's has, they don't have a lot of confidence they would be able to stop them if they are not able to stop this first step of the street striking bill.”
The proposed ordinance is conditional, and only takes effect if the owner of the property pays for the relocation of curbs, fire hydrants, street lights and other overhead and underground city owned structures, and delivers salvageable structures to the appropriate city storage area.
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