Did Political Donation Grease the Wheels of Little Pete’s Demise?

Stephen Pouppirt, developer of the proposed Hudson Hotel, made large contributions to Councilman Kenyatta Johnson in 2013.

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When it comes to generating public outrage, it’s hard to top demolishing a beloved, grimy, 24-hour diner and replacing it with a luxury hotel. Plans to do just that, of course, were revealed last week, when Councilman Kenyatta Johnson proposed a bill (below) that would rezone the Center City block on which Little Pete’s diner sits, paving the way for the $125 million Hudson Hotel.

Well, there’s one more element you could add to the mix to amp up the outrage further: The whiff of transactional politics. In a twist to the Little Pete’s story, it turns out the developer of the proposed 300-room hotel — there’s already a Hudson Hotel in midtown Manhattan — is a recent contributor to Councilman Johnson’s campaign committee.

Stephen Pouppirt, the developer on the project, who runs Clemens Construction, made two $2,500 donations to Johnson in the summer of 2013, according to Philadelphia’s campaign finance database. Pouppirt is not exactly a regular donor to Philadelphia city councilmen. Before last summer, his most recent donation occurred in 2011, also to Johnson — for $100. Before that, you’ve got to go back to 2007 and 2006, when he donated to Congressman Bob Brady, then-Governor Ed Rendell, and then-Councilman Frank DiCicco. Both Johnson and Pouppirt declined to comment on whether Pouppirt had made any more recent donations that haven’t yet shown up in his campaign filings.

Pouppirt released a statement in regard to the donation that read, in part: “As a longtime resident of Center City and of the Councilman’s district, I support Councilman Kenyatta Johnson because I believe in his vision for our community.  He is committed to public service and making a difference in our community.  I will continue to support him and his work to make Center City and the surrounding community a great place to live for all residents.” He added — and this won’t upset Little Pete’s nostalgics at all — that he wants to “ensure the development is a community treasure.” Pouppirt says he began working on the project in December 2013, several months after the donations.

There is no evidence, of course, that Johnson proposed this legislation — which, barring massive public pressure, is likely to pass before the new year — simply because of a $5,000 contribution. ($5,000 is significantly higher than the $2,900 individuals are permitted to give to citywide candidates. Because Johnson has not yet declared, however, he’s allowed to receive the extra cash — so long as he doesn’t spend it when he kicks off his re-election campaign next year. “The advice we give people,” says Michael Cooke, director of enforcement for the city’s Board of Ethics, is “always accept within the limits and then you won’t have to worry about it.”) Indeed, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger, who has also championed the project, says that he was the one who steered Pouppirt and the project’s architect to Johnson, in an effort to get the block rezoned. “Companies give money to candidates all the time,” he says. “For what I have to do, I don’t care about it. What I care about is: Is the project worthy, does it make sense?”

Johnson’s office, for its part, refused to directly address the contributions, instead releasing a statement through political consultant Mark Nevins that focused entirely on Johnson’s 2015 primary opponent, Point Breeze developer Ori Feibush. “Ori Feibush is one of the least liked developers in the city and everyone knows why,” Nevins said. “He has made a career out of disrespecting, disregarding, and disenfranchising  community residents for his own personal benefit. We’re certainly not going to take a lecture from him about how to work with local residents.”

Why attack Feibush? Because he’s been playing politics with BelovedDinerGate himself. The day after the news broke, Feibush tweeted a picture of himself noshing at one of Little Pete’s booths. “I love the place,” he wrote. The same day, he released a statement condemning Johnson’s bill, alleging pay-to-play. “Supporting one property doesn’t suddenly make you pro-development,” he told me. (Feibush has mercilessly attacked Johnson as being anti-development.)

Whatever comes of the hotel proposal, it seems the guaranteed-to-be-contentious race for Philadelphia’s 2nd District Council seat has begun in earnest.

Follow @svzwood on Twitter.