Nov. 16, 2018
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.
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 facility—including 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.