Hotel, hookah controversies bring crowds to Rhawnhurst meeting

The Rhawnhurst Civic Association voted against a proposed Bustleton Avenue hotel and continued its discussion of hookah bars.

Zoning attorney Glenn Hing, left, speaks to residents Thursday at the Rhawnhurst Civic Association meeting about a proposal to build a hotel at 8430 Bustleton Ave. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

A standing room-only crowd packed into Rhawnhurst Presbyterian Church Thursday night to hear about a proposed Bell’s Corner hotel and to discuss ongoing issues with hookah bars on Castor Avenue.

More than 150 residents at the Rhawnhurst Civic Association meeting voted against a plan to build a five-story, 49-room hotel at Bustleton and Tustin avenues, across from the former Jack’s Deli.

Zoning attorney Glenn Hing said his client, Tony Zhang, who owns the property at 8430 Bustleton Ave., wants to build a small hotel with 37 parking spots on the site. 

Hing said his client is in talks with various hotel chains and imagines the property as a Best Western or similar brand. He estimated rooms would cost $125 to $150 per night.

Previously, the property was a gas station, and it’s now a vacant lot next to a small shopping area. It is zoned for single-family residential use, but Hing argued it is in a commercial area along a corridor with shops and other businesses.

Property records indicate the lot was purchased last year by a limited liability company for $300,000.

The hotel would be raised to allow for ground-level parking, with four floors of hotel rooms above, Hing said. A cafe or restaurant for the hotel’s guests is also part of the proposal.

After a brief question-and-answer period, neighbors voted 157 to 1 against allowing needed variances for the project. The civic’s board also voted against it.

Tenth District Councilman Brian O’Neill, who attended the meeting, told the Times that the presentation wasn’t very informative, and he doubted whether a national hotel company would want a location on Bustleton Avenue.

“There’s a lot more questions than answers,” he said. “Something about this is not just not right, it’s wrong.”

Tenth District Councilman Brian O’Neill addresses the Rhawnhurst Civic Association Thursday before a presentation about a proposed hotel on Bustleton Avenue and Tustin Street. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

Sen. John Sabatina Jr., a Rhawnhurst native, said he could see the hotel turning into a troublesome property, like the nearby Hub Motel and Roosevelt Inn. The latter has been involved in various criminal and civil cases involving prostitution and human trafficking. 

O’Neill said he thinks the proposed hotel could effectively act as a boarding house for transients in the area.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment is scheduled to consider the application Wednesday, Aug. 28, at 9:30 a.m. at 1515 Arch St. RCA President Ken Kline urged residents to go to the meeting. 

O’Neill promised to reimburse parking or rideshare costs for anyone who goes to the hearing with four or more people, as long as they coordinate with the civic association.

In addition to O’Neil and Sabatina, representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, Councilman At-Large Al Taubenberger and state Rep. Ed Neilson were at the meeting. GOP mayoral candidate Billy Ciancaglini also attended.

In other news, the RCA continued its discussion of hookah bars, which have been a topic at the last several meetings.

The agenda included an expected presentation and vote on a hookah permit for Friend’s Cafe, 7632 Castor Ave. No attorney for the property showed up, so no action was taken.

However, 2nd Police District Community Relations Officer Mark Mroz spoke about the property, saying the lounge has caused a lot of issues on the block with trash, underage drinking and code violations.

“That particular location has been a problem for us for a couple of years now,” Mroz said.

Friend’s Cafe owner Mazin Mukhtar disputed those allegations in an interview with the Times. He said people shouldn’t lump together all hookah bars and criticized the owners of other Northeast lounges where there have been shootings and other incidents. 

Mukhtar said that his lounge serves as a gathering spot for a diverse crowd of young people. He questioned whether community members at the meeting, which he also attended part of, understood his business.

“It’s the safest it could be,” Mukhtar said. “People come here to have a place to go.”

Mroz said beer bottles and other trash around the property have led to complaints from neighbors and businesses. Mukhtar, meanwhile, said Friend’s Cafe employs two security guards and regularly cleans outside the lounge.

Mukhtar said his attorney wasn’t prepared for Thursday’s RCA meeting and will be coming back to present for the permit in the future.

Ali Baba Cafe & Hookah Bar, which is one block from Friend’s Cafe, was granted a permit by the ZBA in April, even after neighbors expressed widespread opposition at that month’s RCA meeting.

Kline said only one person from the community went downtown for the hearing, and that was what made the difference. The RCA is working with attorney John Sabatina Sr. to appeal the ZBA’s decision, Kline said.

The ZBA on Wednesday, July 17, denied a permit for a hookah bar several blocks north at 8012 Castor Ave. Kline said four neighbors showed up to speak against the application, which was also opposed unanimously at last month’s RCA meeting. 

O’Neill, Mroz and Kline said going to zoning hearings makes a huge difference and could sway the board to block a particular project.

In addition, O’Neill said hookah lounges are not in the zoning code, which puts them in murky territory when they’re going for a permit. Some are applying to be BYOB nightclubs, he said. ••

Jack Tomczuk can be reached at jtomczuk@newspapermediagroup.com.