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Fishtowners rant about parking, then rave about Frankford Ave. hotel proposal

Posted on Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 at 10:02am.

Roland Kassis delivering presentation to FNADeveloper Roland Kassis walks Fishtowners through his proposed hotel/shared office/restaurant/club/event space complex on Frankford Avenue at last night's Fishtown Neighbors Association meeting.

That 19th-century former light industrial building with the Shepard Fairey mural just up from Frankford Hall on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown moved one step closer to getting a new lease on life when the Fishtown Neighbors Association voted overwhelmingly last night to support developer Roland Kassis' request for variances needed to turn it and two adjacent parcels into a boutique hotel and co-working facility.

But first, before the lopsided vote to support the project, Fishtowners peppered Kassis with questions about the proposal and vented their frustrations with parking, traffic, noise and other issues that have followed in the wake of the Frankford Avenue revival largely engineered by the developer.

Kassis' presentation to the crowd that packed the community room of the First Presbyterian Church of Kensington made it clear that he is aware of the neighbors' concerns and is taking steps to make sure this project addresses them as best it can.

In addition to the hotel and co-working facility, this development includes two restaurants, a banquet hall, a jazz club and a swim club. It preserves the existing five-story building at 1224 Frankford Ave. and extends it southward by building a new addition where a one-story building currently sits between it and Frankford Hall. This building will contain a jazz club, part of the hotel lobby, the bulk of the co-working facility, the banquet hall and a top-floor restaurant. To its north will rise a six-story building almost as tall as the existing structure; it will contain more co-working space, trash storage and support space, a street-level restaurant, the building's loading dock, and 125 hotel rooms arrayed around an interior courtyard that will also contain outdoor seating space for the restaurant. A pool tops off this new structure.

Architect's rendering of hotel
Architect's rendering of the proposed multipurpose complex.

Kassis said that his project drew on multiple sources for inspiration. The hotel, he said, was inspired by two New York boutique hotels - the Wyse, whose designer, Morris Eisele, is designing this hotel, and the Ace, "where everybody hangs out." The coworking facility takes its cues from New York's Neuehouse, but where that facility largely caters to individuals and businesses in the fashion and design industries, some attributes of this facilityincluding the jazz club and a recording studio—indicate that Kassis, at least as of now, envisions it as appealing to music industry professionals.

Kassis stressed that the rooftop pool would be a members-only facility—not even hotel guests would have access to it—in order to avoid the kinds of problems with noise and loud partying that arose when a similar pool was placed atop the Gansevoort Hotel in New York's Greenwich Village. He also explictly stated that the club would not be run like the North Shore Beach Club, next to The Piazza at Schmidt's in nearby Northern Liberties.

Kassis also assured those in attendance that the Fairey mural, which will be obscured by the new addition, will remain intact and visible from interior hallways.

Many in attendance praised Kassis for the quality of his developments, and his reputation for producing high-quality, high-style buildings no doubt contributed to the vote in favor. But there were some skeptics in the crowd who apparently carried memories of projects past where changes took place on the way from conception to completion. For instance, when one abutter asked when the loading dock would be in use, Kassis replied that it would only operate between 9 a.m and 4 p.m. "I don't believe you," the abutter replied. A few other residents rang similar changes in the post-presentation discussion, claiming Kassis would change plans after gaining approval, but another defended him: "I don't think he's playing us for suckers," the resident said. "I think he's trying to be as open and transparent as possible." The meeting moderator noted that the letter the FNA would write in support of the variances would also contain all the commitments agreed to in the discussion "so we can hold him to it if he doesn't do one of the things he said he'd do."

Parking also proved to be a point of friction. One of the variances Kassis requires arises from the need to provide 107 parking spaces on the site; Kassis proposes to put them on a lot he owns on the west side of Front Street just below Thompson, a few steps west of the hotel. Many in attendance argued that 107 spaces were way too few for a project that includes a hotel, banquet hall, two restaurants and a music venue, but an FNA staff member pointed out that the city cannot make a developer provide more parking than is called for in the zoning code. (Which doesn't keep some civic groups from negotiating more parking anyway, as any developer working in Northern Liberties could attest.)

Residents also raised several other concerns. One resident asked whether a traffic signal could be installed at Frankford Avenue and Thompson Street; Kassis agreed this was an excellent idea but noted that PennDOT would need to okay it as Frankford Avenue is a state secondary highway. Another asked how many jobs would be created at the site; Kassis cited the example of a co-working facility that started with 15 businesses, then doubled in size quickly. One of his responses, to a question about the projected crowds at the restaurants on a weekend—"I'd love to see it packed"—probably did nothing to allay the fears of abutters, some of whom spoke of problems with noise coming from Frankford Hall, another Kassis project. But his response to a question about giving back to the community—"I already do"—was enthusiastically endorsed by another audience member who is active in Friends of Adaire, the support group for the neighborhood's public school, the Alexander Adaire School.

During the post-presentation discussion, one resident's comment offered an inadvertent insight into what might be better characterized as friction between Philadelphia past and Philadelphia future as represented by this project, and it too concerned parking: "Philadelphia has been a very car-centric city," she said, "but we have the El just around the corner. Maybe we will start using our public transit more."

Given the concerns voiced over parking and traffic, the moderator said that the letter would also state that the FNA's endorsement was provisional upon Kassis' receiving variances for the Front Street parcel; those will require the support of South Kensington Community Partners. But that was enough to keep some potential "yes" votes from turning into "no" votes, and when the ballots were counted, both near neighbors living within 500 feet (by a 57-9 margin) and neighborhood residents in general (by a vote of 82-7) agreed to support Kassis' variance requests.

The proposal now heads to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for a variance hearing.

Photos by the author

8 Responses to "Fishtowners rant about parking, then rave about Frankford Ave. hotel proposal"

Marc wrote: The hotel in Brooklyn you reference is The Wythe, not the Wyse.

And yes, it's the best hotel in NYC.

Posted on Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 at 1:12pm.

Sandy Smith wrote: Thanks for the correction.

Posted on Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 at 8:39pm.

steveeboy wrote: lemme guess, drawings show not a single bike rack in front of the place? Just like his other project, Frankford Hall? How is it possible to build on Frankford avenue and not include bike racks?

Posted on Thursday, February 19th, 2015 at 12:54pm.

Sara wrote: Wasn't the Shepard Fairey Mural paid through Mural Arts a city funded program, and just. I take issue with a developer allowing the city to pay for what is basically a private commission that will not be viewable by the general public. As he must have know his plans for the development prior to the painting of the mural.

Posted on Friday, February 20th, 2015 at 1:12pm.

Michael Warrington wrote: Oh please Sara, just stop. You can't halt development of a major project that will create a positive economic engine for the neighborhood and the city because of a painting. The mural arts program is great. The city is filled with empty lots next to derelict buildings that have beautiful murals on them. But when the free market/private development is ready to build on these parcels, the painting has to take a back seat. The same thing is going to happen to the giant "Fish Cornucopia" mural at Frankford and Palmer, but that abandoned parking lot is gross and whatever is built there will be much better than having the painting.

I agree that mural looks great there, but a new hotel with restaurants and a rooftop pool in my neighborhood will look a whole lot better.

Posted on Monday, February 23rd, 2015 at 6:07pm.

Jim wrote: Great point Sara!

The developer should reimburse the city in the very least.

Posted on Monday, February 23rd, 2015 at 6:49pm.

christian wrote: It'd be great to see a hotel in the neighborhood. It'd also be great if the block of Front street behind this potential site would get better lighting and an overall facelift so that visitors would feel safe walking from the El to the hotel!! Can't wait!!

Posted on Monday, February 23rd, 2015 at 10:03pm.

Tracy wrote: Sara,
No need to assume the worst and thus take issue. Note a portion of the newspaper article extracted below, printed right after the mural was completed. The Mural Arts people were well aware, and the developer had already agreed to try to preserve it, something he didn't have to do.

"When he [Fairey]made himself available to the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program for a mural project on short notice, director Jane Golden snapped into high gear. At the eleventh hour, after a few missed hits, she secured this wall of a dilapidated building facing a vacant lot.

The owner of both parcels plans to develop a 125-room hotel in the next two years.

"This site was for a temporary project, to be honest," said Golden. "Temporary could mean a year, two years. We understood the precarious nature of what we were doing, but we said, you know what, let's just move forward."

The owner of the properties, Roland Kassis, said he is working with his architects to try to design the hotel around the image. It may become part of its interior."

Posted on Tuesday, February 24th, 2015 at 7:19pm.

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