What will replace the storage garages between Fletcher and Colona Streets on the 800 block of E. Thompson Street? Will Fishtowners who enjoy a stroll to the ice cream shop Scoops for a sundae or sugar cone on a warm summer night have to hunt for somewhere else to get their fix?
At a zoning meeting hosted by Fishtown Neighbors Association last Tuesday, the community voted to approve the construction of a three-story apartment building on the lot, but the margin was razor thin.
It may be too early to tell what will happen to Scoops.
The project, a five-unit apartment building with a small retail space on the ground floor, was rejected by the Zoning Board of Adjustment for three reasons — the lack of open space, the balconies, and the multi-family status. Variances for those three elements would be required for approval.
Architect Richard Miller of RKM Architects walked the approximately 60 neighborhood residents who showed up through the proposed project. He acknowledged that the current proposal contains no open space, but he pointed out that the garages and retail space it will be replacing lack open space, as well. He also noted that the balconies are too small for parties or barbecues.
He called attention to his attempts to make the structure blend in with the surrounding neighborhood by making it shorter than the maximum allowed height and using similar brick.
“We’ve always loved that section of Thompson Street with the brick row houses that are across the way,” he said, “and we tried very much to take a stance toward the site that worked with the adjacent context, both in terms of material and scale.”
In an apparent attempt to get out ahead of complaints about parking, he explained that the demolition of the existing garages would actually open up three and a half new parking spaces.
Even so, parking was a big concern.
“Parking is a nightmare,” one resident said. “It’s insane. I know you mentioned bikes, but that’s what every developer says, like, ‘Oh, everyone who moves in has bikes.’ ”
There’s so much congestion,” another woman said. “If anyone comes home from work after 5 o’clock, they have to park blocks and blocks away.”
Kim Miller of RKM said, “We think it’s going to attract people who will take public transportation and we are providing for bike storage. We’re trying to do what we can to provide amenities for these units to support people taking public transportation.”
Other residents were concerned about building management and trash pickup.
Developer Chloe Deon explained that she would be handling the management herself at first.
“I really care about this property,” she said. “I know people in the neighborhood, and you guys live there. I wouldn’t do anything to trash this property up. I want to involve it with the neighborhood and keep it with the same feel as a Fishtown neighborhood, with the beautiful brick, same as the houses across the street. I’m not looking to mess anything up. I want to enhance it.”
A key question was what would happen to Scoops, and what the developer would do to make sure the retail space wouldn’t go empty like so many others in the neighborhood.
“Scoops has first dibs,” Deon said. “If Doreen wants to keep the space open, she’s more than welcome to operate it.”
Deon said that she was so committed to keeping the retail space full that she was willing to make it available rent free.
“We’re not going to charge any rent for the retail space. The variances allow us to do that.”
“I hope everybody realizes that this is a really bad project,” one resident said. “It’s a bad project for Thompson Street and it’s a bad project for Fishtown. There’s absolutely no reason at all to grant a variance for multi-family dwellings. There’s no reason for them not to build single-family homes. It may not make the most profit, but that’s not our problem.”
The amount of open space was the sticking point for him.
“The codes recommend that you leave a little bit of open space. That’s a good thing. Just because before somebody built these crappy garages and covered 100 percent, there’s no reason to go back to that and cover 100 percent.”
A direct neighbor to the property also opposed the project.
“My biggest concern is the density and a kind of synchronization with the sensibility of the neighborhood and the largely single-family homes that are there. This is just an effort to maximize profit. I have concerns about the nature of the business that would go in. I do like their effort to open it up to local people, and I would love to continue Scoops. I don’t see the benefit here. I don’t see what a large building would do that three single-family homes wouldn’t accomplish.”
Another resident noted that single family homes wouldn’t necessarily be more compact than the current proposal. “They’ll probably go 38 feet plus a pilot house, so the neighbors will actually lose more sun that way. I think this is a pretty good plan when it’s all said and done. It could be better, it could be worse, but at the end of the day, it’s livable.”
Residents voted in support of the proposal, 27 to 26. Neighbors within 500 feet voted against it, 14 to 12, but the wider community voted for it, 15 to 12.
So, what about Scoops?
At the meeting, several Fishtowners stated that they wanted Scoops to stay. Will neighbors still be able to indulge themselves at the corner of Thompson and Colona?
Proprietor Doreen Thompson is still making up her mind.
“Chloe asked before, but I really don’t know if I want to go in there when it’s done,” she said. “I was not aware that it would be rent free, but we didn’t really discuss it. It was a casual conversation and we didn’t really get into any specifics. We haven’t discussed anything further.”