A weekly series of foul-mouthed investigations into empty lots, dead-ass proposals and other design phenomena in Philadelphia. Find more stories like this at Philaphilia.blogspot.com.
1200 Chestnut Street
It only takes one NIMBY to fuck up a multimillion-dollar, fully-approved project that would have saved a historic building and created tons and tons of tax revenue. 1200 Bank would have been a kick-ass establishment to have at a corner that sorely needs it, a proud symbol of Philadelphia's continuing renaissance. Nonetheless, the grand Philadelphia tradition of NIMBYism helped take it down.
It was in November of 2009 that the idea of a new billiards hall being installed in the old Beneficial Bank Building at 12th and Chestnut was first publicized. For Wash West/Midtown Villiage/Gayborhood residents, the level of excitement from the announcement alone was tangible. After all, this was an opportunity to clean up one of the worst corners in Center City. Ever since the Beneficial Bank Building was abandoned by its own creators in 2001, the beautiful Horace Trumbauer-designed megalith had devolved into a homeless encampment due to its large, porch-like portico and conveniently bed-sized ledges along 12th Street.
It only took a few years before the lower portions of the building were covered in a fine patina of bum piss that would make a fresh summertime scent throughout. The Porch-Portico supported layers and layers of feces. Remember, this proposal came along post-housing crash, meaning it was one of only a handful of proposals in the city at the time. It was like a fucking gift from the Development Gods.
The initiator of this grand idea was no rookie in the business, either. Paul Giegerich had been a partner in NYC's Amsterdam Billiard Club since 1990 and was co-owner of his own goddamn manufacturer of (among other things) billiards equipment. He saw the opportunity for Philly to get yet another thing that every other city but ours has: a proper upscale billiard hall. Giegerich's plan did it up right, with designs from DAS Architects -- the old Beneficial Bank banking floor with 50-foot ceilings would be converted solely to billiards. The mezzanine space would hold a bar/restaurant.
What could have been.
The old Beneficial Bank boardroom would become a rentable event space. On top of all that (literally), 1200 Bank would include a rooftop lounge. Let me emphasis the word again: LOUNGE. Not a nightclub, concert venue, or Noisemaker Factory, mind you, but a LOUNGE. The original plan was to have this rooftop lounge be completely open to the air and the street, allowing patrons to enjoy the Chestnut East architecture from an otherwise impossible vantage point. It would also have a clear retractable roof to allow the LOUNGE to be used in all weather. 1200 Bank was set to be the best thing to hit Chestnut East since Anthony M. Zane.
An early rooftop concept that was later changed.
People lost their fucking shit once they saw the plans. Though it would need Historical Commission, ZBA, and Wash West Civic Association approval, the project was already garnering tons of support. That is, except for a handful of people who live in expensive-ass condos across the street at the old S.S. White Building. These neighbors assumed that the noise generated from the rooftop LOUNGE was going to be an never-ending amount deafening music and primal screaming that would have the ability to break through their windows and cause earthquakes across the world.
At first, it seemed like it wasn't going to matter. The Historical Commission gave its approval in October of 2010 and John Gallery of the Preservation Alliance wrote a letter publicly endorsing the project. The folks behind 1200 Bank eventually compromised on the rooftop LOUNGE, making it more enclosed by planning to install an 8-foot opaque wall along the 12th Street side (rendering at the top of this post). This helped them get approval from the Washington West Civic Association. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. NIMBYs from the White Building (rumor has it that it was really just one) lawyered up (conveniently, the chief NIMBY was a high-powered attorney) and still heavily opposed the project.
This caused the Zoning Board of Adjustments meeting about the project to be pushed back over and over again, into early 2011. This NIMBY-induced delay caused the proposal to become more and more unlikely. By February of that year, Councilman Frank DiCicco had enough of this shit. He introduced Bill #110083 into City Council. This bill would allow the space to be spot-zoned, allowing the 1200 Bank proposal to be "By Right", meaning it wouldn't need ZBA approval and the NIMBYs nearby could suck it.
The bill didn't get passed until December 6th, 2011. The bill was modified only to allow the spot-zoning to be in effect for six months after it became law. This meant that Giegerich had only until June 2012 to get everything going or the bank revert back to Bum Colony status. Surely enough, it never happened. The project somehow met its demise within that time period and was declared dead by the media on June 12, 2012.
Though it is truly unknown how the project exactly died (probably $$$-related), it is clear that the delays caused by NIMBYs executed a crippling blow to this otherwise heavily-supported project. The building went up for lease again, but this time, it was also offered for sale. On December 24th, 2012, the building was purchased for $3.5 million by a high-powered Center City-based lawyer that was once named among American's top ten litigators. This is good news because this guy is pretty much NIMBY-proof. That means that whatever the next proposal is, there's a good chance it will happen if there's enough dough to back it up.
Currently, the building itself is going though an even further devolution into a temple to homelessness. The facade is in worse shape than ever, and if no one comes along to save it, could end up putting this fine piece of architecture in danger of destruction. So what can be done? Here's my idea:
The MegaLawyer that currently owns the space should hook up with the guy from TNT Amusements and convert the place into an upscale alcoholic arcade space. Oh, Barcade and Dave and Busters already cover this niche, you say? Nonsense. This place could be like an East Coast Mecca for alcoholic video game nerds. All they need to do is go to DAS Architects and get those 1200 Bank designs-- then they can convert them to arcade purposes (also, spend millions of dollars). You could have different sections with classic arcade games, pinball games, and boardwalk-style games. To help make it unique, all the game machines would be for sale. Dorks would come from miles around to have birthday parties and shit there, something TNT Amusements already knows a lot about. Since they're the best infomercial creators that ever lived, the place couldn't lose.
Sounds silly? Well, that's better than what the building is doing right now: a whole lot of nothing. Just trying to illustrate the possibilities this space holds. Someone with a lot of money and balls the size of Long Island needs to come along and make this old bank pop. Save Chestnut East!
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