It was a full house last week when community representatives met with developer David Grasso to determine whether a community benefits agreement might be created to ease concerns over his proposed riverfront music venue.
And while the meeting started with some contention, the meeting seemed to end on a positive note with all parties involved looking to work together amicably.
Held in the empty office complex at 2055 Richmond St. — the site of Grasso’s proposed 34,000-square-foot, 2,700-patron music venue — the meeting included representatives from nearby community groups and the offices of Councilmen Darrell Clarke (D-5th dist.) and Frank DiCicco (D-1st dist.) and the 26th Police District.
Joining the group of about 25 people was Mark Squilla — the unopposed Democratic candidate set to take over the 1st Councilmanic District after DiCicco retires at the end of this year.
Despite the strong turnout from various community leaders, the talks might amount to little more than a show of good faith; needed zoning changes for the project were approved by City Council last month, leaving little bargaining power for neighbors.
Although Clarke asked Grasso to make a benefits agreement with the community, there is no legal stipulation requiring the developer to do so.
Asked about this last week, Grasso said he wanted to create a benefits agreement regardless, since the club would be a part of the river wards community once it’s built.
“The last thing we want to be is adversarial in our community,” he said.
Residents have expressed concerns over the creation of a music venue at the riverfront location since the idea was first proposed last summer, citing problems in the past with nightclubs on Delaware Avenue.
In fact, these problems led DiCicco to create a zoning overlay that banned similar properties from opening in the area, but the retiring councilman pushed to see the venue bypass this overlay to come to the riverfront.
Residents worry that the venue would bring on problems ranging from patrons parking cars in the community to tailgating, drug use and drunken sex between parked vehicles — all nuisances neighbors dealt with in the past when night clubs lined nearby Delaware Avenue.
But, Grasso said his venue has one big difference compared to those clubs — a sole promoter and property manager for the venue in the form of Live Nation, which handles promotions for Center City’s Trocadero and Festival Pier off of Delaware Avenue.
Grasso called past problems in the area, “a result of who was running” the clubs, and promised things would be different with Live Nation involved.
In the past, he said, club owners rented to promoters, often radio stations and others, that didn’t have to deal with the fallout of poorly planned or monitored events, since they only rented the venue.
“No one else will be operating this location besides Live Nation,” Grasso said.
Along with booking every event, all staff at the venue — from box office workers to bartenders and security — would be employed by Live Nation.
The security company would also be tasked with patrolling the parking lot to curb tailgating and other problems.
When concerns were raised over what types of shows might be held at the venue, Brian Lamb, facilities manager for Live Nation, said that the events would be similar to the shows currently being held at other Live Nation venues, including many all-ages events.
“I’m doing Wiggles shows right now,” he said, pointing to the child-friendly band that played the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby last week.
Michael Fenerty, of the Old Richmond Civic Association, said that, even if parking is handled adequately — Grasso claims to have at least 600 parking spots on site with another 250 to 280 close by — surrounding streets could be clogged with traffic before and after events.
“Cumberland and Aramingo is going to be like a ball game,” he said, comparing traffic to the sports complex in South Philly. “Residential side streets are going to be baring the brunt of that traffic.”
Grasso said he is still in talks with PennDOT and hopes to create an alternative parking lot behind the Port Richmond Shopping Center; he is also working with the agency to make sure “signs are posted and directions are available online for the optimal routes” in and out of the area.
Capt. Mike Cram of the 26th Police District expressed concern that with the influx of thousands of people at any event — the venue expects to host about 80 to 100 concerts and events each year — his district would be unreasonably overworked.
“I can’t pull resources from other parts of the neighborhood,” said Cram.
Pointing to the western end of his district, which covers as far as 10th Street and north to Lehigh Avenue, Cram simply said “people are dying out there.”
He suggested Grasso and Live Nation look into the Police Department’s Re-Imbursable Overtime Services Workflow program that allows officers to work overtime hours in the private sector.
The program, Cram said, works well at other bars and clubs and the extra police on the street even help cut down on nuisance crimes in the community.
“Thefts from autos tend to go down because the extra police are out,” said Cram. “They bring something to the community.”
This idea was seemingly met with approval.
Finally, Tom Potts of the New Kensington Community Development Corp. worried that since the zoning change affected not just at 2055 Richmond St., but two other properties on the block as well, more venues could come to the area.
Grasso also has an agreement with 2255 Richmond St. to allow additional parking, but the two other properties, which are currently operating businesses, could be nightclubs in the future by right due to the permissions he received last month.
“That’s not my intent,” Grasso assured. “I’m not building anymore nightclubs.”
With this being the first meeting of the groups — in attendance were representatives from ORCA, NKCDC, Fishtown Neighbors Association and Fishtown Action — much was left up in the air at the conclusion of the gathering.
But, for an event that started somewhat contentiously, attendees seemed more comfortable with the plan at the end of the meeting.
“I enjoyed this meeting,” said Squilla. “It’s good to have this kind of discussion.”
Over the summer there will be ongoing meetings to create a benefits agreement.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Grasso said he looks forward to another meeting and he hopes to create a venue that can address residents’ concerns.
“I may not have been clear before, but this is still an evolving thing,” he said.
Asked when the nine-month long construction process might begin, Grasso wasn’t sure but said he hopes to have construction started before 2012.
“I think sometime this year is a safe bet,” he said.
Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org