City Council could OK Grasso venue

Although his project was voted down at a special community meeting last August, developer David Grasso might yet see his vision of a 34,000-square-foot music venue on the shores of the Delaware River ultimately realized.

Last week, a City Council committee OK’d a bill that would alter zoning and make the project possible, with plans to vote Thursday, June 16, on the bill.

City Council’s Rules Committee voted in favor of the bill during the June 7 hearing, with Councilmen Darrell Clarke (D-5th dist.) and William Greenlee (D-at-large) the only to vote against the proposed changes.

Still, Clarke said he’s “not necessarily opposed” to the project, but he’d like to see a public process — with some sort of Community Benefits Agreement created, as had been done during the development of Sugarhouse casino — before he would fully support the project.

Last week, Grasso, owner of Grasso Holdings Development Co., said his plan for a 3,000-patron venue could transform an underutilized, rundown area of waterfront property at 2055 Richmond St. into a vibrant entertainment destination.

He testified that, if built, the venue would provide a “northern anchor” to a Delaware Avenue commercial corridor, revitalizing an area that is a “desolate, dangerous place for people to go who want to avoid detection by police.”

“People have parties back there, and it’s very close to being called a Wild West, in my opinion,” said Grasso.

Joined by Michael Rapino, executive director of Live Nation Inc., the promoting company that would book performances, Grasso said his project would “clean up a dangerous part of the city while helping to clean up the waterfront.”

Grasso said his project would bring the community 300 new jobs: 75 construction and more than 200 full-time in box office, food sales and other positions.

Yet, some didn’t seem too sure of that claim, as representatives from the Olde Richmond Civic Association, the New Kensington Community Development Corp. and the Fishtown Neighbors Association expressed concerns that Grasso’s venue would be a “night club” — a seemingly hated term that, for many, brings back visions of a time when seedy establishments lined the waterfront and patrons caused headaches for residents.

Councilman Frank DiCicco (D-1st dist.) drafted the bill that would change the zoning designation of the area bounded by Richmond Street, Cumberland Street, Beach Street and Schirra Drive to allow for night clubs, by making the area a C-3 commercial district and remove a prohibition on night clubs from a Delaware Avenue zoning overlay that DiCicco himself created.

Speaking last week, the retiring councilman said he supports Grasso’s plan, and said the community meeting that rejected the venue “was never done in a scientific way.”

He — inaccurately — claimed the FNA had never had a sign-in sheet at the meeting, where Grasso project was voted down 57–38.

When Clarke asked about the potential for a CBA document, DiCicco said that after that meeting, “all discussion at that point ended” with the community groups.

“Leadership just didn’t like it, end of discussion,” said DiCicco.

Even if that was the case, Grasso made it a point to note that he remains open to creating a CBA with area groups.

“I’m hearing mixed signals,” complained Clarke during testimony.

Peg Rzepski, Democratic leader of the 31st Ward and a member of ORCA, testified that the group had sent a letter of opposition to the plan due to the worry that Grasso’s project could usher in a new wave of problem clubs in the area.

While Grasso owns two properties on Richmond Street, locals expressed concern that the two other properties in that area, which are currently operating businesses, could be closed and reopened in the future as night clubs, as the bill would include these properties.

“It’s inappropriate and must be rejected,” said Rzepski. “The impact on our area is going to crush it.”

Locals pointed to parking concerns, although Grasso assured the committee that he had enough parking with a plan for at least 640 spots due to parking being legal all along Richmond Street.

She said she’d like the bill to be put on hold until DiCicco was out of office so that it could be reviewed by the new councilman, presumably Mark Squilla.

Capt. Mike Cram of Fishtown’s 26th Police District had concerns of his own.

He said that with the new casino, his district already is spread thin along the waterfront. He worried that a new music venue, and the thousands it could attract each evening, could tax his district.

“What sort of response are we going to need to cover this?” he asked. “I need to know what type of events they are going to have, what type of security, how will they handle crowds.”

Paul Kaiser, an aide for State Rep. John Taylor’s (R-177th dist.), requested a community process be initiated in order to ensure the community is protected from any headaches the venue may create.

“If we are going to have this, it needs to be something that’s a community effort,” said Kaiser. “Now, all of our folks are up in arms about it.”

Representing the NKCDC, Tom Potts, head of the organization’s Neighborhood Advisory Committee, said he’d like to see the bill tabled for “at least five years,” to wait until ongoing improvements to I-95 are finalized before moving forward with the project.

Finally, Neil Brecher, president of the FNA, spoke in opposition to the plan and discussed last year’s meeting, which indeed had a sign-in sheet to take a tally of residential votes.

According to Brecher, about 120 people showed up at that meeting, 95 of which were eligible to vote.

Residents, he said, were concerned about parking in that area because public transportation isn’t much of an option for the waterfront site.

“Public transportation isn’t particularly robust in that area,” he testified. “This is just not the right time for this project.”

After the meeting, Clarke said he spoke with Grasso about working with the community to create a CBA before moving forward.

At the end of last week, Clarke said he was still expecting details in writing from Grasso on how further meetings intended to create the CBA would take place.

“We still need to talk,” said Clarke. “I’d like to see Captain Cram’s concerns responded to. You only have so many police.”

Clarke said Grasso could possibly ease these concerns by hiring a larger security staff or commissioning off-duty police officers.

Grasso said he would be reaching out to the local organizations in the coming weeks to “discuss issues related to the operation of the venue and a proposed community benefits agreement.”

He expects to hold a meeting on the CBA in the near future.

City Council will meet on Thursday, June 16 in a public meeting where, Clarke said, a final vote could be held on the bill.

Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215–354–3124 or hmitman@bsmphilly.com