York City planners turn down initial plans for former Bottoms Up bar
If Rakesh Patel gets his way, the former Bottoms Up Hotel and Bar & Grill, 696-698 E. Philadelphia St., will soon be a rooming house with a neighborhood grocery store at street level.
Patel, who owns a check-cashing business in the 300 block of East Philadelphia Street and has several rental properties in the city, bought the building last spring.
Patel wants to fix up the old hotel, which he said dates back to the 1890s, so that it is no longer an eyesore in the neighborhood. Because he is known as a landlord, he often receives requests for a temporary place to stay. He believes there is a need in the community for "nice, affordable intermediate accommodations" — people going through a tough time financially often need somewhere to stay while they get back on their feet. That could mean weeks or months, and he is prepared to accommodate individuals, couples or families, he said.
Special exception: Since the building has been vacant for more than a year, Patel said Tuesday, it must be re-zoned.
York City Planning Commission Board members were leery of several aspects of Patel's plan when he, his lawyer, the project's engineer, and contractor Robert Strickhouser III presented it at the commission's monthly meeting Monday night. Patel and his associates applied for a special exception for the neighborhood grocery piece of the project and a use variance for the rooming-house part.
The plan includes 18 rooms in total — two on the ground floor and eight on both the second and third. According to Strickhouser, about eight of the rooms have their own bathrooms, and four of those have kitchenettes. Residents of the 10 rooms without bathrooms would share common facilities.
Concerns: Members of the planning commission board raised concerns about the shared bathrooms, which some thought were outdated, and the high density of residents. They also asked Patel about his plans for parking accommodations for residents.
Patel and his associates addressed the possibility that the rooms could be turned into apartments. That would be hard, they said.
It would be difficult and expensive to change the building's layout, the contractor said, because he would have to tear down supports walls and put in new headers and beams.
Besides, Strickhouser shares Patel's belief that there is a need for affordable intermediate housing in the community. One of his employees has lived with his family in a hotel for more than a year because he cannot afford the costs that come with renting an apartment, he said.
In the end, the planning commission board essentially dismissed Patel's request, recommending that he speak with city officials about how to make the plan conform to zoning laws and how to reapply to the commission and zoning hearing board.
Official approval: "Until I see the plans, I can't make any judgments," Carol Hill-Evans, president of the York City Council, said on Tuesday.
Hill-Evans said she commends Patel for going through the proper channels to get approval for the project: some rooming houses pop up in the city with no official approval, she said.
Hill-Evans said she is fine with the neighborhood grocery part of the plan, but she hesitates to say the rooming house is a good idea because of the negative effects such places have had on city neighborhoods.
"I want to see the statistics that say, 'We need 18 more rooms,'" she said, referencing a recent study that showed the need for market-rate housing in the city.
Hill-Evans worries that people will leave if the neighborhood gets worse.
"The most important thing to me ... I want to know the neighbors are OK with it," she said, noting that transient residents can destabilize a neighborhood.
York City resident Russell Detter, Jr., who lives about 10 blocks from the former site of Bottoms Up, said the neighborhood has been "better" since the business closed more than a year ago. The bar, which he said operated for over three decades, used to be "almost like 'Cheers'" but became a bad scene as the years went on.
Bottoms Up served as a hangout for the same people, mostly single men, who lived in the hotel rooms upstairs, he said.
But the business became central to the neighborhood's drug scene, he said, and closed after a fatal shooting on the sidewalk in front of it.
A need: "I don't think they're gonna make as much money as they think," Carter Smith, who lives on the same block of East Philadelphia Street as the former Bottoms Up, said while sitting by the window of Philly Street Deli, a corner store directly across the street from the vacant bar and hotel. "Locals come here. They're comfortable here."
But is there a need among residents of the neighborhood for affordable intermediate housing?
"Yes," he said. "That would be the logical thing to do."
Brian Shoffstall, who works at the deli, painted an extremely violent picture of the neighborhood. There have been three shootings on the block in the past week, he said, only one of which police responded to. He pointed out fresh bullet holes in the door of a garage behind the deli.
Shoffstall agreed with Smith that there is a need for a rooming house but said it would be "hard to monitor" because the building "attracts the wrong kind of people."
— Reach Julia Scheib at firstname.lastname@example.org.