A website and electronic flier offer potential investors an opportunity to partake in O Havana, a 300-room luxury hotel with restaurants, a spa and a nightclub “in front of the SugarHouse Casino”, boasting retro Cuban flair that “has support from the City of Philadelphia, Delaware River Authority (sic) and the community.”
But here's the rub:
Fishtown Neighbors Association Zoning Chairman Matt Karp, who forwarded the flier to PlanPhilly last week, had never heard of it until he got a copy circulating among Fishtowners. Ditto for Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association and chairman of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, as well as folks discussing it on Fishtown.us.
SugarHouse Casino is also not familiar with the gambit. “This is not us,” said casino spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker. “We are not building a hotel” in the next phase of expansion.
No one affiliated with such a project has contacted the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Executive Director Gary Jastrzab said in an email. City support for this project would require PCPC action.
“The Delaware Riverfront zoning overlay would require Plan of Development approval from the PCPC,” Jastrzab said. In addition, depending on where the project would actually be – no specific address is given – zoning changes might also be needed. “If this site is across Delaware Avenue from SugarHouse and immediately south of Shackamaxon Street, it is zoned G2 and wouldn't permit any commercial uses,” Jastrzab said.
The flier references the Motion Picture Hall of Fame. It says it will be next door, and will draw 1 million visitors a year. Jastrzab says he's heard some talk about the MPHF - he thinks it's being shopped around to various cities.
It took a little doing for PlanPhilly to reach someone from O Havana. The phone number listed rings with no answer and no voicemail. Emails out to two of the three "contact us" addresses found on the flier and website, which has a 2012 copyright at the bottom, bounced back.
But O Havana Managing Partner Orlando E. Ballate responded to an email. Ballate said he could not be interviewed about the project until he returns from a business trip in Asia and the Middle East, but he answered some questions by email, and referred PlanPhilly to the website for more information.
“We and our local partners, Core Equities, have had several meetings with City officials and neighborhood groups and they expressed support for the project and the positive impact to the City and neighborhood in terms of construction jobs and permanent jobs and revenue to the city,” Ballate said in an email. “We are hopeful to get permits by July 2012.”
Core Equity is Michael Samschick's company, as is Core Realty. The O Havana flier says the hotel would be in the “Penn Treaty Village Entertainment District.” No such designation exists. But Samschick, who has a good bit of property along Delaware Avenue, is working on a development called Penn Treaty Village.
Samschick could not be reached for comment on this story. Waterview Grande, a new residential building crafted from a former storage facility at 1-33 Brown Street, is just the beginning of Penn Treaty Village, according to articles in Naked Philly and the Philadelphia Business Journal. A hotel is mentioned, as is retail and entertainment.
Ruben said Northern Liberties Neighbors hasn't formally met with Samschick since he came to talk about Waterview Grande, which got city approvals in 2010. A board member did speak to Samschick informally. “He mentioned the possibility of things like a movie theater, something like that,” Ruben said. A hotel was also a possibility.
Delaware River Waterfront Corporation Planning Director Sarah Thorp, who oversees the development of the city's long-range vision for the redevelopment of the riverfront, said her organization had many discussions with Samschick while working on the Master Plan for the Central Delaware. He talked to them about ideas that included a hotel, she said, but nothing was far enough along for DRWC to take a position one way or the other. And there was no mention of O Havana, or a hotel with a Cuba-based theme.
The O Havana flier and website don't seem to fit Samschick's style. In addition to the mostly erroneous contact information, the flier states “O Havana has in planning and/or design 25 Casino/Hotel resorts, 150 Hotels and 300 stores worldwide. ” Google searching can produce no evidence of this. When told by email that PlanPhilly couldn't find anything on the web about other properties, and asked if any are built or under construction, Ballate replied, “We have three projects under construction: One in Central America, one in Caribbean and one Middle East. We are in discussions for acquisitions with several existing casino/hotels in Atlantic City, Las Vegas and Biloxi, Miss.; and new projects in South America.”
The website says the expected return on investment is 31 percent, and invites potential investors to fill out a form. From a pull-down menu, they can indicate a level of financial interest from “up to $500,000” to more than $50 million. They can also express investment interest in other O Havana properties.
David Fecteau, the community planner for this part of the city, notes the flier predicts a 2013 completion date. "If anyone tried to pull a permit now, there is no way they could get done in 2013," he said.
Ruben said he hopes Samschick will come talk about his plans with Northern Liberties and Fishtown. “As a community, considering the redevelopment of a very large swath of area can be an exciting, and also a daunting task,” he said.
When told about the flier, Ruben said it didn't sound like a Samschick project. “It reeks of something distributed by someone from out of town who doesn''t know what they are doing,” he said. “We haven't seen a lot of that in this economy. But in the mid 2000s, we had a lot of that.”
For Fecteau, all the oddities suggest another possibility: "It seems like they are just trying to scam people," he said. "I wouldn't trust them."
If O Havana turns out to be a real and viable project, Ruben isn't a fan of the concept. “The real question for our waterfront is, will we be able to get this thing redeveloped in a way that looks and feels like Philadelphia?” he said. It doesn't have to be colonial, or similar to any other time period in town.
But Ruben said whatever goes on the waterfront has to fit in with its surroundings, and something designed to bring “the retro glamour of 1950s Havana to the world,” as the website says, just doesn't do that.
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