Roxborough residents speak up about plan to bring Wendy's to former Bunting House site
James Matthews felt so strongly about the restaurant that he put his thoughts down on paper.
In a letter distributed at a Central Roxborough Civic Association meeting, Matthews wrote that the proposed Wendy's — or any business, for that matter — at the corner of Ridge and Roxborough avenues would "destroy the serenity" of the neighborhood.
"It will be gone!" he predicted.
He referenced a Burger King that appeared in his boyhood home of Orange, Va. — population 4,813 — whose sign was, in his words, "extremely noticeable."
"In my mind, at that location," Matthews observed, "this definitely took away the tranquility of the town and immediate area."
Packed room at civic meeting
On Thursday night, hundreds of residents turned out to hear details, and voice their thoughts, about a planned Wendy's in Roxborough.
As reported by NewsWorks, developers want to locate the fast-food restaurant at the site of the former Bunting House, which was a demolished after a lengthy public effort to save the historic residence.
Representatives for the site's developers, brothers Anthony and Frank Giovannone, said that the proposed restaurant would be 3,200 square feet and would feature outdoor seating, parking for almost 40 vehicles and, potentially, a drive-thru window.
The design would be similar to the Wendy's restaurant which recently opened along Fox Street in the Baker's Centre site near East Falls.
Advocates for the project noted that 50 jobs would be created, thousands of dollars in taxes would be paid to the city and "new food choices" would be brought to the Roxborough retail corridor.
This was not the first time CRCA's membership heard this pitch. In March, the Giovannones fielded questions about possibilities for the site. At the time, the brothers said they had no agreement in place with Wendy's or any other restaurant chain.
However, they said a preliminary plan was filed with the city Planning Commission indicating a generic fast-food use on the property, which includes 5901 through 5909 Ridge Ave.
Focus of the meeting
As developers can build the restaurant by-right, Thursday night's meeting centered on one key point: In order to secure zoning approval for a drive-thru window, developers will have to obtain a "special exception" from the city.
A community-based review is part of that process, but city planning officials have described approval as being easier than in the more-typical zoning variance process; the community must establish that the drive-thru would have an adverse effect on the neighborhood.
City officials are predicting that neighbors would face a challenge in establishing this adversity.
However, officials from Wendy's corporate office suggested that if the drive-thru was not approved by the ZBA, plans for the restaurant could be scrapped. They expect up to 65 to 70 percent of their sales to be drive-thru, with up to 75 percent of consumer traffic being impulse.
Developers would also need approval to include the red-headed image of "Wendy" on restaurant signage.
What they said
No vote on the project was taken on Thursday.
Instead, central Roxborough residents will receive a survey from the civic group in coming weeks, the results of which will be relayed to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
Neighbors expressed a variety of concerns, ranging from the restaurant's design to larger impacts on home values and quality of life.
Regarding traffic impacts, prospective patrons will have full access to both Ridge and Roxborough avenues.
Traffic engineer Frank Montgomery said that he "didn't anticipate any issues" based on traffic to the neighborhood, as most customers would already be driving. He envisioned between 41 to 75 "new trips" to the restaurant per hour during weekday evenings and Saturdays.
Jim Petkovitz said he felt the developers had misled neighbors in earlier dealings with the community, and asked how they could once again be trusted.
In response, Carl Primavera, attorney for the project, described the Bunting House as being "dangerous" prior to its demolition, and referenced the deadly collapse that occurred this spring in Center City.
"The building was empty; the building was vandalized," he said. "If one of your kids got in there and was killed or raped or died, we would be having a different conversation."
John Boyce, president of Friends of Gorgas Park, offered pointed criticism to the delegation of representatives from the Wendy's corporate office.
"These people do not know this community," said Boyce. "I think that it's presumptuous of them to come to this community and act like they're an authority on Roxborough, when they know nothing about it."
For and against
CRCA President Ed Hotham asked for a show of hands from those present to gauge support for the restaurant. NewsWorks' estimate is that opposition carried the vote by a ratio of approximately 15-to-1.
However, social-media polling indicates sizable online support for the project.
As of Thursday night, the "Roxborough Wendy's" Facebook page had almost 1,600 likes, compared to the "Roxborough Residents Against Wendy's" page, which showed approximately 600 likes. As of 9:30 a.m. Friday, a NewsWorks poll about the project showed 1,095 votes against and 599 in favor of Wendy's.
Beyond these indices, Primavera said that 500 job applications have been tendered.
While only one resident from the queue of speakers expressed outright support of the restaurant, backers of the restaurant were certainly in attendance.
Ralph Sposato, who owns several businesses along Roxborough's Ridge Avenue corridor, spoke to NewsWorks in favor of corporate-oriented enterprise, noting that "the mom and pop store idea is done, it's gone."
In response to problems associated with people loitering in parking lots, which he experiences at his own properties, Sposato said "you can't control what people do."
"Progress," he concluded. "We cannot stop progress."
What elected officials are saying
At present, local political leaders are withholding judgment on the project.
Josh Cohen, special assistant to Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., said the office has not formulated a position on the project, and that he felt there were still questions that needed to be addressed. He raised the possibility of a continuance to allow additional time for review.
State Rep. Pam DeLissio said that while she has received several email blasts regarding the project, she has had "no direct conversation with anyone" on the subject. She was not in attendance Thursday night.
"It's not that I am not interested, but this project is not a state policy or a state government-related issue," she said, adding that House legislation is commanding her attention.
Looking ahead to the project's Nov. 6 ZBA hearing, CRCA attorney Hal Schirmer explained that the zoning board will formulate their decision based on what is presented to them by the developers, the civic association and residents. He added that the ZBA is not the final say: Appeals at higher judicial levels are possible.
Closing the meeting, Roxborough resident Celeste Hardester issued a challenge to those associated with the project.
"This is an opportunity for Wendy's," she said. "This is an opportunity for you to be responsive to a community that is trying very hard to make Philadelphia work."
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