How Fishtown could get stuck with a lemon of a car dealership

This rendering shows the design of the Carvana auto dealership planned for Front Street in Fishtown. The Market-Frankford El runs along the edge to the site, but the site is bordered by a rowhouse neighborhood.

You know what they say about trusting a used car salesman. That goes double for the millennial-friendly used car company that wants to install a nine-story glass “vending machine” for cars in Fishtown.

The vertical showroom is the brainchild of Carvana, a Phoenix start-up that styles itself as the Match.com of the second-hand car business. You scroll through its website until you find a model you like, then swipe right. If you don’t want to pick up the car in person, Carvana delivers directly to your home, and you get to test-drive it for a week before committing. Given that so many of our momentous life decisions are now made on the web, it was only a matter of time before someone came up with a vehicle for ordering cars online.

Unfortunately for Fishtown, Carvana’s virtual sales pitch comes with an actual glass-and-steel structure, a 90-foot-tall tower that will be stacked with cars and illuminated night and day to capture the attention of  motorists on I-95. Consider the tower a stealth billboard, but one that would be located in a residential area, the pocket of Fishtown wedged between the highway and the Market-Frankford El. Not only will Carvana’s bright lights be beamed directly into the neighboring rowhouses, they are likely to be visible across a wide swath of Fishtown and Northern Liberties.

To pick up and deliver cars, Carvana’s flatbed trucks will have to thread through narrow streets to reach the dealership at Front and Wildey Streets, just south of Girard.

Camera icon Morris + Associates
Morris + Associates helped design the glass car tower for Carvana’s Houston location.

How did Fishtown get stuck with such a lemon? Easy. The city handed Carvana the keys.

The site, which had been owned by the city for decades, was sold to developer Michael Samschick, of Core Equity, in 2015. This year, he leased the property to Carvana. Despite the Who’s Who of public agencies that facilitated the transaction, and the involvement of Councilman Mark Squilla, no controls were enacted to influence how the site was developed or to ensure the public benefited in some way.

Camera icon David Maialetti
The Carvana site in Fishtown is near the Market-Frankford El on Front Street, where infill houses and new businesses have been clustering. Rowhouses border the site on Wildey Street.

The Zoning Board is now set to decide a crucial variance that could determine whether Carvana goes ahead with the Fishtown project. Because auto dealers are permitted under the site’s CMX-3 zoning, Carvana easily obtained a building permit for its vertical showroom, and the structure is under construction. But to make the glass tower function as a billboard, the company needs the Zoning Board’s approval to install eight backlit signs. Without that high-visibility advertising ringing the structure, there isn’t much reason for Carvana to build on this site.

Carvana had expected to receive a green light from the Zoning Board on Wednesday. Instead, the board voted to delay a decision for at least two weeks, noting that Carvana had provided no details about the signs’ brightness. The Fishtown Neighbors Association and several Wildey Street residents urged the board to reject the variance.

“It’s a colossal waste of a great site. It should be an apartment building,” said Susan Shulman, whose house would directly face Carvana’s light tower.

Camera icon David Maialetti
Susan Shulman looks out the window of her Wildey Street house at the site where Carvana has started construction of a nine-story vertical showroom.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Shulman and other residents voiced concerns about the health effects of Carvana’s high-intensity lighting. Scientists, including Thomas Jefferson University neurologist George C. Brainard, have found that that round-the-clock illumination can disrupt circadian rhythms, weaken immune systems, and cause other bodily havoc. The Zoning Board should take that research seriously. A no vote on the sign might change Carvana’s mind about building in Fishtown.

The project would be terrible for the neighborhood in much more basic ways. The little corner of Fishtown had taken a beating for decades. When I-95 came barreling through in the 1960s, it left a trail of vacant lots in its wake. As the area rebounds, those empty spaces are being peppered with infill housing.

Samschick has played a significant role in the revival. He helped reinvigorate Richmond Street when he opened a branch of the Fillmore in the long-vacant Ajax Metal Foundry. The demand for building sites is so strong developers have been flocking to Front Street, pushing their facades right up against the rumbling El. Just recently, a fancy fried chicken place embedded itself in a beautifully renovated bottling plant at the corner of Wildey and Front Streets, right across from where Carvana wants to put its vertical showcase.

Given the intense development interest, you have to wonder what Samschick was thinking when he bought the block-size property for $1.25 million. His initial plan was to use the site as a parking lot for the Fillmore, something Squilla and the Fishtown Neighbors Association supported. Parking is an obsession in Fishtown, as it is in many neighborhoods, but devoting an entire city block to the storage of cars seems beyond excessive.

Camera icon Onion Flats
In 2013, the Onion Flats design collective responded to a city competition with a proposal for an intergenerational apartment building at Front and Wildey, where the Carvana auto dealer is building. The architects say they never received a formal response.

City planners had once envisioned a more ambitious use for the site. In 2013, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. organized a competition to seek building proposals. According to people involved with the effort, at least two developers responded: Samschick’s Core Realty and Tim McDonald’s Onion Flats. Onion Flats proposed intergenerational housing in a mixed-use, mid-rise building, with some subsidized units. Samschick proposed a parking lot.

Ultimately, the city abandoned the competition without selecting a winner. Matt Karp, who was then head of the neighborhood association’s zoning committee, said he kept waiting for the city to organize another developer search. It never happened. Instead, the land was transferred to Samschick. A year later, his Core Equity donated $2,500 to Squilla’s campaign organization.

It turns out the Fillmore didn’t need the parking after all. Enter Carvana, an ambitious start-up that boasts a growing number of vertical showrooms in cities like Nashville and Houston. In May, it announced it was expanding its operation to Philadelphia. Oddly, when I contacted a Carvana spokeswoman this week, she refused to answer any questions about the company. Carvana hasn’t turned a profit since its founding in 2013.

Based on Carvana’s website, most of its dealerships are sited along suburban highways, an environment very different from the rowhouse streets of Fishtown. Had Carvana tried to erect a standard billboard on the site, it would have been turned down by the city, which requires those poles to be spaced at least 500 feet apart. There are already two within that distance. If Carvana wins permission to install signs on its vertical showroom, it will amount to an end-run around the billboard law.

Neither Samschick, Carvana, or, for that matter, city officials returned my calls about the project. Squilla did, however. He told me he was unaware that Samschick’s parking lot, which he supported, had morphed into a very different kind of project, and he expressed concern about Carvana’s impact on the neighborhood.

Philadelphia owns thousands of lots just like the Samschick property. Once worth nothing, these sites are now intensely coveted by developers. Next time the city sells off public land, it ought to make sure the public really benefits.

Camera icon Carvana
The site of the planned Carvana auto dealer is across the street from a residential area in Fishtown that survived the construction of I-95. Here’s a proposed view of the building at night. The tower functions as a billboard.