The Philadelphia City Planning Commission Tuesday endorsed proposed legislation that would close a portion of tiny Bodine Street to motorized vehicles, making way for Finnegan's Wake to build an outdoor dining patio.
But commissioners did not like Finnegan's Wake owner Mike Driscoll's plans to build a two-story balcony extending more than 14 feet over the Spring Garden Street sidewalk. The Planning Commission recommended that city council amend a second zoning bill so that Finnegan's can add a second entrance for catering customers, while denying the balcony.
The plan has been controversial since it was first discussed last year.
Driscoll said the physical changes would allow him to change his business model, focusing more on the catering business – which he said is booming in Northern Liberties - and less on the bar. But the way Northern Liberties Neighbors Association saw it, Driscoll wanted to privatize public property for his own gain. And while Driscoll says the balconies are to provide outdoor areas and access to city and river views for catering patrons, neighbors feared noise and other nuisance problems.
The original streets bill introduced by former councilman Frank DiCicco died at the end of 2011 without a council vote. DiCicco did not call it up before the end of the session because Northern Liberties Neighbors Association and Driscoll had not reached an agreement.
Changes were made to Finnegan's design, and to the new legislation, introduced May 3 by First District Councilman Mark Squilla.
As proposed, Streets Bill 120395 would strike Bodine Street from Spring Garden Street to Green Street, but, in a change from last year's legislation, a six-foot portion of the former street would become a pedestrian walkway. The commission voted 4 to 2 to recommend city council adopt the bill, and told Driscoll to look at expanding the width of the walkway.
As proposed, Streets Bill 120396 would allow the construction of two, 61-foot-wide balconies on the second and third floors of Finnegan's to encroach 14-feet, 4 inches over the Spring Garden sidewalk, leaving 1 foot, 8 inches of sidewalk uncovered. It would also allow a 10-foot long vestibule to project 4 feet, 8 inches onto the sidewalk, leaving 11 feet, four inches of sidewalk unobstructed.
After much discussion, a motion to take planning staff's recommendation and recommend council not approve the second bill failed. Commissioner Brian Abernathy had made a motion to table the bill for 45 days – which would have meant Council could not act on it until the fall. But after Driscoll told him he worried his financing would be in jeopardy if there was not quicker action, Abernathy amended his own motion. Commissioners voted 4-2 in favor of his second proposal, recommending Council amend the streets bill so that it grants permission for the vestibule, but does not allow the balconies.
During the meeting, NLNA President Matt Ruben told commissioners the balconies were a no-go with the association, as neighbors say Finnegan's has already created noise and other problems, and they believe this would make it worse.
“We're not running a drug bar,” Driscoll said. He said there was little he could do to control customer's behavior once they leave his establishment.
Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger's concern about the balconies was that they projected so far into “public airspace.” He said he could see how the balconies would be beneficial to Driscoll's business, but not to the public.
Ruben said that for many years, Finnegan's dumpster has blocked Bodine Street as though it were private property. NLNA does not mind closing Bodine to vehicles, and the current proposal with the pedestrian right-of-way is a big improvement. But Ruben said six feet still didn't have the feel of a public street. He said after the meeting that personally, he'd like to see the path widened to eight to 10 feet.
Greenberger said he wasn't troubled by the current proposed size of the footpath. He said the ground-level dining, plus a landscaped area on the other side of Bodine Street, where the city's Democratic committee headquarters are, would make the area feel open and public, and he said this part of Driscoll's plan would hugely improve this part of Bodine.
Renderings shown by Driscoll and architect Leonard Ciccotello showed a revamped Finnegan's building with the current brightly colored Spring Garden facade replaced by brick red and gray and windows with awnings. The two-tiered balcony dominates that side of the building, and Driscoll said after the meeting that despite commissioner's partial endorsement of his plans, he remained “a little bit concerned” about his financing. “They really liked the balconies,” he said.
Ciccotello said he would certainly look at expanding the pedestrian walkway, but the current six-feet is already a big improvement on the current sidewalks. “Three people could walk side-by-side,” he said.