It was a tale of two applicants with two very different presentations and outcomes at Thursday night’s New Hope Zoning Hearing Board meeting.
Nick Gialias was first up with consideration of his proposed “Nektar” restaurant at 8 W. Mechanic St., a variation on the wine bar theme featuring beer, spirits, and wine specially paired with small plates. Gialias had spent considerable time working with the Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) and consulting New Hope’s Borough Council and Zoning Hearing Board in the weeks and months preceding the meeting, and had assembled the de rigueur presenting team of local lawyer Paul Cohen and architect Ralph Fey. Gialias himself spoke well, offering convincing arguments and factoids in a relaxed but responsive manner.
With no public opposition to the project, Nektar’s variances sailed through, and local supporters of the project in attendance never had to approach the microphone.
Zoning Hearing Board Member Joel Roberts recused himself from voting on the project, as is customary for public officials who own property adjacent to proposed businesses or developments. Board Members Steve Stahl and Laura Hahn were not in attendance Thursday.
The subsequent presentation by the Bucks County Playhouse team on that organization’s request to erect multiple special event tents in their parking lot and construct additional signage about the building went badly from the get-go.
The presenters, while cordial and informative, neither utilized legal counsel nor were prepared to provide requisite proof of prior signage approval and future parking arrangements (proposed Playhouse tents would be used for up to 50 days per year, eliminating up to 30 parking spaces, and owners will need to offset that loss by leasing parking spaces elsewhere). Special event tents are highly desired by Playhouse management because they have been well-received in the past, and provide valuable space for occasions like opening night receptions for shows, VIP gatherings, and community fundraisers, they say.
But things went from bad to worse when the issue of the requested additional signage variances arose. The Playhouse would like to construct a new 8′ x 10′ sign over its main entrance, and when questioned about existing signage, representatives at the meeting were unable to document permission for a sign painted on the building’s north-facing side. The sign, reading “Bucks County Playhouse,” has not been approved, according to at least one Borough official, and contradicts the spirit of a July 25, 2004 Zoning Hearing Board precedent banning riverfront signage, according to publicly-available documents.
That ruling, denying Museum Properties, LLC a sign on the Delaware River to promote their for-profit museum at the site of the former Club Zadar currently owned by the Playhouse, led to the owners’ withdrawal of the application and apparent subsequent disuse and disrepair of the building. Owners had made it clear to the ZHB that they were “unwilling to accept anything other than as proposed,” according to documents, and apparently gifted New Hope with its best-known eyesore, according to Borough officials close to the situation at that time.
The 2004 application by Museum Properties proposed “a double-faced sign, located on a cupola above the roof of the three-story building designed for the sole purpose of accommodating the sign…one side will face Main Street and the other side will front on the Delaware River and would be designed, according to the applicant’s testimony, to attract visitors from Lambertville.”
The 2004 decision goes on to say, “The Delaware River, in the vicinity of the New Hope/Lambertville frontage is bucolic and for the most part undisturbed and, due to the existence of the canal path on both sides of the river, as well as the river itself, a prime source of outdoor recreation including boating, hiking, biking and the like…when asked by the Borough Solicitor why a large white sign on the Delaware was proposed as opposed to something more ‘aesthetically pleasing,’ the Applicant responded that the design of the sign was in the investors’ own personal tastes.”
Thursday night, Playhouse representatives seemed caught off-guard by traditional local sensitivities toward river signage, and were unable to provide detail on approvals received and the date of the sign’s installation. File photos from Free Press archives indicate it occurred at some point between April and early May of 2013, well after major renovation of the Playhouse.
In the end, the Zoning Hearing Board asked Playhouse representatives to return on Sept. 4 to continue discussion and present “more evidence” of existing and proposed sign details, including exact locations, dimensions, illumination and permits.
Given the sometimes rocky relations between the ZHB and Playhouse, both groups displayed a high level of cordiality and cooperation. In fact, at issue during Thursday night’s meeting was less the appropriateness of the Playhouse using more large tents and putting up more signs than their inability to produce adequate documentation to support their requests. With a high level of community support, it would seem the Playhouse will ultimately get much if not all of what they want. Those in the community who don’t recognize the cultural and economic importance of insuring a thriving Bucks County Playhouse are few and far between.
But while last night’s presenters from the Playhouse handled the often awkward interactions during the hearing with aplomb and candor, they were obviously ill-served by those who sent them off unprepared for standard committee procedure, and will now have to explain to the Borough an apparently unapproved sign — the only area sign around visible from the Delaware River.
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