Updated: Friday, March 6, 2015, 3:01 AM
Every changing neighborhood in Philadelphia seems to have one: a developer who dominates the scene.
In Northern Liberties, it's Bart Blatstein. In Newbold, it's John Longacre. In Point Breeze, it's Ori Feibush. On South Broad Street, it's Carl Dranoff. They amassed their real estate holdings when the neighborhoods were cheap, then became the masters of their destinies when the places emerged, Sleeping Beauty-like, from slumber.
Now, it's Fishtown's turn, and Roland Kassis is the reigning developer. Over 25 years, Kassis estimates, his company, Domani Developers, has collected a million square feet of property, mainly in old manufacturing buildings along Frankford Avenue, the neighborhood's commercial spine. That's almost as much space as the Comcast Tower holds.
Kassis, 44, who was born in Lebanon, raised in Liberia, and speaks French, exhibits the same manic energy and insatiable appetite for abandoned factories as the other neighborhood titans, but he has a sensibility more in tune with Fishtown's arty, DIY, tattoo-and-vintage-loving culture. He not only nurtured a yoga studio on Frankford Avenue, he practices there and eschews meat. It's hard to imagine many other Philadelphia developers chanting "Om."
Having already populated Frankford Avenue's eclectic buildings with a beer garden, La Colombe super-cafe, vintage clothing stores, an edgy hair salon, Web designers, and upscale BBQ and cheesesteak restaurants, Kassis is attempting his first new construction project, a boutique hotel a half-block north of Girard Avenue next to Frankford Hall. Its inspiration comes from the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section. Kassis has even hired the Wythe's New York architect, Morris Adjmi.
Williamsburg was already on its way to becoming the capital of millennial-dom when the Wythe opened in 2012, but the hotel provided it with a groovy clubhouse for art happenings and exhibits. Kassis said he envisioned his hotel filling a similar niche and plans to include meeting rooms, party space, and a jazz club, as well as a spa and rooftop pool. He has already secured the blessing of the Fishtown Neighborhood Association, and will seek a package of variances from the Zoning Board on April 1.
Only a few years ago, any hotel in an old working-class neighborhood like Fishtown, never mind one of the high-end variety, would have been unimaginable, despite the convenience of a Market-Frankford El stop and an I-95 exit. But Fishtown is having its Williamsburg moment, and, as Kassis persuasively argued, travelers are increasingly seeking out distinctive lodgings in such undiscovered locations.
"When I travel, I always stay in boutique hotels," he said.
His hotel is likely to accelerate the process of smoothing out Fishtown's rough edges. Until now, Kassis' developments have subscribed to an aesthetic that might be called "ruin preservation." The Frankford Hall beer garden and the former warehouse now occupied by La Colombe are typical of the light-dusting approach. Other than scraping away some flaking brick, shoring up the intricate wooden roof trusses, and adding reclaimed wood and casement windows, he left the rugged buildings pretty much as-is.
With the hotel, Kassis plans to clean up another spectacular relic, a former brewery with tall, vaulted ceilings. But he is having Adjmi design a new, six-story structure on the empty lot next door.
Adjmi, who got his start working with the Italian architect Aldo Rossi on his acclaimed Scholastic building in Soho, has perfected a style that might be called nouveau industrial. Constructed with heavy I-beams, or things made to look like I-beams, his designs appear to be the descendants of great factory buildings. Because of their family resemblance to those tough old workhorses, his designs are tailor-made for neighborhoods such as Fishtown and Williamsburg, struggling to hold on to a bit of their gritty heritage.
Ironically, Adjmi has already designed an I-beam-style facade for an 11th Street building that is part of the mixed-use, East Market development. But what appears to be steel in those renderings is actually painted concrete.
In Fishtown, Adjmi said he hoped to use the real thing, either steel or aluminum, to outline a grid of casement-style windows. Except for the arched windows at the top - a nod to the brewery - the design looks a lot like his handsome condo building on Manhattan's Bowery. Although the Fishtown design is still evolving, Adjmi promises that the Shepard Fairey mural on the brewery's north wall will be left visible in the hallway of the hotel.
Adjmi's new-old balance should be well received in Fishtown. Philadelphia's changing neighborhoods have always had a hard time holding on to their sense of authenticity: First, we discover them. Then, we wreck them. The restrained nod to Fishtown's DNA at least promises to make the change feel less disruptive.
It's also nice to see a project that doesn't involve more rowhouses. Neighborhoods need buildings of varying scales offering varying uses. It can't be all bars, restaurants, and houses. Besides the hotel, Kassis is also renovating two actual factories, putting a total of 87 apartments in the former Chesterman and A.J. Reach buildings near Palmer Park.
As Fishtown develops, the challenge will be to manage the growing demand for parking, especially to support the nightlife on Frankford Avenue. To provide 100 parking spots for the hotel and its events spaces, Kassis plans to take over a large vacant lot on Front Street north of Thompson Street. It's the least appealing part of the project.
The parking is required under the zoning code because Kassis intends to include restaurant and banquet spaces in the hotel, but the neighborhood has also made parking a condition of its support for the project. It's a shame Kassis chose to sacrifice a prime site on Front Street just as that corridor is beginning to show signs of a commercial rebound. The lot creates a big black hole of inactivity on the street, destroying the continuity so necessary to sustain retail.
Because parking lots seem to stick around forever, the local neighborhood association, South Kensington Community Partners, is still weighing whether to support Kassis' plan. It's a real dilemma, because without the approval, the hotel can't be built and the Frankford Avenue lot will sit empty. Eventually, the two neighborhoods - Fishtown and South Kensington - will have to work out a more sustainable solution, perhaps a garage with ground-floor retail.
As the neighborhood's dominant property owner, maybe Kassis even knows a location where one can be built.