In South Phila., a fight over plans and parking

Anthony Massaro is one of the residents who packed the zoning committee meeting about the plan for the site at Ninth and Wharton Streets. Many complained that finding parking will become more difficult.
Anthony Massaro is one of the residents who packed the zoning committee meeting about the plan for the site at Ninth and Wharton Streets. Many complained that finding parking will become more difficult. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 17, 2015

It is an empty parcel at the edge of a block of rowhouses, a corner aglow from the nearby cheesesteak meccas that make South Philadelphia hum all night: Pat's and Geno's.

But the lot at Ninth and Wharton Streets - like other real estate in resurgent South Philly - is the front line in a war over disappearing parking, a battle that finds longtime residents fighting the lucrative forces of progress.

A developer's proposal to fill the space with a batch of apartments and stores is being met with fierce resistance in Passyunk Square, where redevelopment has made parking harder than ever for those who live in the century-old rowhouses that spoke off newly resurgent Passyunk Avenue.

To make their point, scores of residents piled into the basement of a nearby church Tuesday night, democratically venting what could charitably be described as disgust as they heard from the people vying to win approvals for proposed projects.

"I please request that you do not scream," Jesse Fuchs-Simon, zoning committee member and moderator of the Passyunk Square Civic Association meeting, implored as the meeting raged for nearly three hours.

Residents' targets were not just the proposed complex of stores and apartments across from Pat's King of Steaks. That plan requires a variance from the zoning board.

Also booed was restaurateur Stephen Simons' proposal to reopen the Triangle Tavern with enough sidewalk tables to seat and serve 64 people along 10th and Reed Streets from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Residents unleashed a storm of questions, criticisms, and exclamations delivered with flourish and occasional profanity.

"This is residential! Not commercial!" shouted a man with a thick Italian accent, decrying Triangle's canopied café plan. The outdoor seating requires approval by the city's zoning board.

"We don't want that to be Geno's Steaks on our corner," said another man, referring to the open-all-night, fluorescent-and-neon-lit landmark a few blocks away. "We're already a parking lot for Geno's and Pat's."

Residents sprang out of folding chairs to be heard inside Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church at 10th and Dickinson Street.

"I've lived with these people all my life," said Steve Lauer, who handles constituent services for Councilman Mark Squilla. "Whatever they want," Lauer added, "I'm with them."

The apartment-store proposal would be built atop a 30,000-square-foot parcel that includes an adjacent rowhouse on the 800 block of Wharton. The combined lots squarely face Pat's, the third-generation family business that has served the city's signature sandwich at Ninth and Wharton since 1930.

Developer Paul Mirabello's lawyer, Brett Feldman, said that while the parcels are zoned single-family residential, "we believe what the map says is not accurate."

Beyond that, Feldman said, Mirabello's proposal makes sense. The development would put up to five retail stores facing Pat's, with apartments on top. Only such a mix could work so close to a corner that faces open-all-night Pat's and is just a few steps away from Geno's.

"We have an international tourist destination," Feldman said. "People come from across the world to go to Pat's Steaks."

A woman from the crowd interrupted: "Why, I don't know," she said.

The crowd laughed at the barb. Even Feldman smiled.

"We're trying our best," Feldman said. "It's now been 30 years. The only applications that have come this far were for a White Castle and a mini-golf course."

A church stood on that corner before its demolition three decades ago. An adjacent mural also harks back to a different era: Larger-than-life portraits of favorite sons Frankie Avalon, Chubby Checker, Jerry Blavat, Bobby Rydell, Al Martino, Fabian, and Eddie Fisher are faded and chipped.

Gilbert Lettieri, 72, said he felt the parking situation had reached a critical point. His family has owned two houses on the 800 block of Wharton for nearly a century, after emigrating from Italy.

One of the two houses Lettieri owns with his siblings is a three-unit rental. And so, when Lettieri stood up to question the development, Mirabello took aim.

"You own a multifamily next door. But a multifamily beyond your property becomes inappropriate?" Mirabello said.

"That was 90 years ago my parents bought that," Lettieri replied. "There's no parking in the streets. Period."

Pat's owner Frank Olivieri said Wednesday that he does not support the development.

"If the neighbors don't want it," Olivieri said, "I don't want it."


mpanaritis@phillynews.com

215-854-2431 @panaritism

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