Philadelphia Business Journal, August 24, 1998

$75 million Manayunk project in the works

Thomas J. Walsh Staff Writer

Manayunk's bustling Main Street may soon reach across to an old paper mill site on Venice Island, where plans are in the works for riverfront apartments, a hotel and restaurant and shops.

The $75 million project is planned by Realen Properties Associates of Ambler, which won the bidding battle to develop the site and is set to purchase the site from Connelly Containers Inc.

Realen's plans call for four elevated buildings that will combine street-level shops with several floors of luxury garden-style apartments. Plans for the buildings call for a tree-lined thoroughfare between them, and include a public esplanade on the canal and river sides of the island, along with pedestrian concourses leading to the site.

At the western end of the property, where now stands a crumbling, 88-year-old mill, Realen is proposing a 120-room limited service hotel that would include a 9,670-square-foot restaurant overlooking the Schuylkill River.

If it comes to fruition, the development would represent a major addition to Manayunk's already thriving commercial district.

The working name for the project is Cotten Street Landing, named for the street that leads to the main bridge to the island, located in the center of Manayunk.

Realen planned to go public with its plans this week, said Dennis Maloomian, the company's president and CEO. "We'll be meeting with some individuals and business owners with influence in Manayunk," he said. "We've crafted a preliminary plan that shows a great deal of sensitivity to Manayunk."

Maloomian said he was sensitive to the fact that Manayunk residents might initially oppose the project. However, he stressed that the development would open up the river in that immediate area for the first time.

"[Besides], the community is accustomed to having 40 to 50 large trucks coming through there every day," said Thomas Connelly, president of Connelly Containers, whose Bala Cynwyd paper packaging operation across the river will not be affected by the sale. "This is an industrial site, with all the sights, sounds and odors of an industrial site. When you look at the tradeoffs, the positive effects this will have far outweigh the negative impact of more cars."

Manayunk's residents and businesses have complained about a lack of parking on Main Street since the neighborhood became the trendy restaurant and retail mecca it is today.

The Realen proposal calls for the construction of below-ground parking. There will also be several floors of parking within the hotel. In all, 450 cars could be accommodated.

Connelly announced in late May the mill would close, and 59 workers have since lost their jobs. The plant is now in the process of being disassembled, and demolition is planned for November, pending zoning approval.

Neither Connelly nor Maloomian would comment on the 3-acre parcel's price, but sources familiar with the deal said that it was sold for more than $7 million. Maloomian would only say that financing for the project, should it commence, would be entirely private.

"The price reflected the enthusiasm for this market," Maloomian said.

Realen Properties is an affiliate of Realen Homes. It was one of four finalists for the project, after 12 submitted request-for-proposal packages during the summer.

Developer Bart Blatstein, who purchased land from Connelly two years ago and built the Main Street 6 theater nearby, was one of the developers on the short list. To strengthen his hand, he brought in Manayunk's most prominent business owner, Dan Neducsin, as a partner. It was to no avail.

Blatstein said that his plans also called for a mixed-use development.

Some of the other bidders, Blatstein said, included parking czar Joe Zuritsky, O'Neill Properties and the Kravco Co.

Maloomian now faces the task of making his plans a reality. The parcel will have to be rezoned entirely, and he'll have to answer to various community groups like the Manayunk Neighborhood Council and the Friends of the Canal that have mobilized and strengthened over the years.

"The community groups were well-informed and cooperative," Blatstein said of his experience in the theater development. "They were involved in every step of the process. They were naturally concerned about development of that scope and size."

"I would imagine with the scale of the project that there would be public hearings," said Kay Smith, executive director of the Manayunk Development Corp. "It has too big of an impact on this community. I think everyone is going to have a different perspective. But that's one of the things that has made [this neighborhood] so strong."

Smith's group is cooperating with the City Planning Commission on a master plan for all of Manayunk, due by the end of the year. She said that creating a pedestrian-friendly environment along the water's edge is something that is a priority for most residents.

Although Smith knew that Realen was the winning bidder, she has not yet seen plans for the site. "Some of that sounds really interesting," she said.

While he may have his hands full with neighborhood groups, Venice Island is not subject to the current ban on new restaurants in Manayunk.

The Realen package includes the conversion of an old utility bridge west of Cotton Street into a pedestrian bridge.

"I don't want the community to prejudge anything before we get to them," Maloomian said. "We looked at this first and foremost as a residential project. Even with the hotel part, it's the 24-hour presence [of people] that is important."

Realen has not yet secured a hotel chain for the project, but the company has developed a number of hotels for Doubletree in the past, and is currently working on a lakefront Doubletree in Erie.

The plans also call for about 200 apartments over the retail stores, and would be priced according to river views, street views and canal views.

The Philadelphia architectural firm Bower Lewis Thrower drew up the blueprints. L.F. Driscoll Co. has been contracted to be the builder.

Also up for sale is the Namico Inc. soap factory, west of the Connelly paper mill site. Realen's plans should increase the value of that property.

Connelly and Maloomian said that the property is environmentally sound, although more testing needs to be done.

@1998, Philadelphia Business Journal