Parker Spruce Hotel Owner Presents Plans for “Boutique” Fairfield Inn; Neighbors Air Grievances

The 1920s-era hotel has earned a less-than-stellar reputation, and the neighbors weighed in heavily about the past, present and future of the Parker Spruce Hotel.

Parker Spruce

The Parker Spruce Hotel | Photos: James Jennings

The Washington Square West Civic Association held a public meeting last Tuesday night regarding the redevelopment of the Parker Spruce Hotel at 13th and Spruce Street.

The room at Bluemle Hall on Thomas Jefferson University’s campus was packed with people waiting in anticipation to not only hear about the news plans for a hotel billed as a new three-and-a-half, four star establishment, but also to have their voices heard by the presenters, The Wankawala Organization, regarding the Parker Spruce’s traumatic past and damaging present taking place during interior demolition.

The information-only session became heated, but all in attendance were in agreement that something needed to change at this corner.

The Plan: Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott

The meeting started out swell. Owner Mihir Wankawala provided a taste of his personal background, mainly about how he moved to America from India at age 11, later went to Drexel, worked for Verizon and bought his first hotel property in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 2005. That’s the CliffsNotes version of how The Wankawala Organization came to be and now it employs hundreds of people spread over 10 brand name hotels in the Mid-Atlantic region. Wonderful.

A small fire on October 20, 2014 ultimately led to the closure of the building and, after four years of managing the property, The Wankawala Organization announced in April that they had officially acquired the hotel.

Given its history, Wankawala explained why the property remained in its seedy state: “I know a lot of you are upset with what we did after we took over in terms of the management, but again we just took the property under control because we couldn’t get the financing at that time … We are a well-run, well-experienced, professional organization who doesn’t have a record in running a property like this. So it was very hard to find people to run a property like this. Given that, that’s history, that’s past. I want to focus on [its] future and how we can make this a great success.”

With hotels seemingly popping up all over the city and banks now providing the financing needed for these projects, Wankawala explained the time is now right to present the new vision for the Parker Spruce Hotel.

Plans call for the Parker to become an actual hotel with an instantly recognizable and trusted brand: a Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott, with 118 rooms that cater to upper middle class visitors and families and rates in the $200/night range. “This will be the only Fairfield in downtown Philadelphia,” said Wankawala.

Tara Betz, Wankawala’s regional director of hotel operations, then explained that the Marriott is one of the toughest flags to secure in the hospitality world, “You get to Marriot by having other brands, and that’s where we started and worked our way up to, and now we are finally green-lighted for a Marriott product.”

In an effort to reassure those in attendance that it won’t return to its old Parker ways, Betz said Marriott holds management to a stringent set of rules, regulations and guidelines. In fact, Betz went on to say, the hotel is subject to unannounced inspections by Quality Assurance every 6 months. “So we have to keep it on the up and up, cause you never know when they’re walking through the door,” said Betz. 

Interior demolition on the property has already begun (more on that later), and Wankawala later explained he expected construction to begin in the “4th quarter of this year” and expects “to complete the project by 3rd quarter of [2016].”

The Restoration

Stuart Rosenberg, principal of SgRA Architects and architect of record on the project, followed the initial presentation with an in-depth look at the historical assets of the building, and how they fit in to its revamped future.

Rosenberg, who led the renovation efforts at the Le Meridien hotel at 1421 Arch Street, explained that the team successfully nominated the building to the National Register of Historic Places, due to its age, location in the Washington Square West historic District and it being deemed a contributing building architecturally to that district. “Our intention is to do an investment tax credit project here, which means we’re restoring the building,” said Rosenberg.

The building, while filthy, still contains many of its original features that date back to the 1920s, including the exterior brickwork, limestone on the first level, copings, metalwork, leaded windows (including a lunette window above the entrance) and the lobby’s marble floors. Stating the obvious, Rosenberg said, “The original brickwork, we don’t think has ever been touched since the day it was built around the turn of the century.”

That said, work will include power washing “100%” of the building, installing historically accurate, yet modern, windows, restoring the limestone (which had been painted) and also bringing back to life the original marquee, which contains a tin ceiling that they hope they can fully restore.

Perhaps the most important bit of information as it pertains to the renovation is that it will be a custom build outside of the Marriott prototype of floor plans and designs. “They’ve agreed to waive all the prototype requirements, which means this is going to be a custom boutique hotel,” said Rosenberg, while noting they’ll be creating an Art Deco aesthetic throughout the hotel with the help of Floss Barber Inc. “We are departing from the standard Marriott book of requirements … they really want to be at this location, they love this neighborhood.” 

The new Fairfield Inn and Suites will have a small meeting room, fitness facility and corner restaurant space that serves as the breakfast area in the morning, and switches over to a full-service restaurant, possibly with outdoor dining, in the evening.

Again, looking to distance this project from the shady past of the Parker, Rosenberg reiterated that the ground floor will be well-lit and a concierge at the desk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: “There will be a presence at the front desk all hours of the day and night and, in my opinion, that will enhance the whole sense of security in this area of the city.”

Prior to the question and answer session, The Wankawala Organization’s attorney Darwin Beauvais, of Zarwin Baum in Center City, mentioned that the team wasn’t in front of the community seeking approvals for a variance, “we said that we would love to come out here just [to] give everybody an understanding and an update as to what we’re doing for the former Parker Spruce Hotel … We’re just here as a courtesy and to open ourselves up for questions at this time.”

Councilman Mark Squilla and State Representative Brian Sims were in attendance, as were the residents of Washington Square West who aired their grievances.

Pent Up Frustration

While representatives from the project wanted to focus on the Parker’s future, the community and near neighbors wanted to voice their concerns about the way the “slum” hotel, as it was later called, was run under The Wankawala Organization over the past four years, and the damages being caused by the ongoing interior demolition.

“I want you to know,” said J. Nathan Bazzel, board member of the Washington Square West Civic Association. “I want to see this project done, but you also need to know, and I assure you, most of the people in this room are quite angry. I’m safety chair here. I’ve been involved with your structure more times than I wish to count. And I was standing out in front of your building working with the American Red Cross on October 20th and I want you to know that the number of children that were in that building shocked me and the Red Cross.”

Multiple residents, including Bazzel, were furious with the way the building was being cleared out, saying the open windows and unprotected disposal shoots were becoming a public health issue and the unidentifiable contractors didn’t care about their work and were verbally abusive to the neighbors who voiced concerns. Bazzel later said, “We usually have ten people at these meetings–ten people. This room is packed. That’s how important this is to this community.”

One man, a resident of Spruce Street, said the dust billowing from the site has been so frequent, that he’s had to clean his air conditioning units “no fewer than six times since you started the demo,” and repeatedly asked Wankawala throughout the meeting, “what are you going to do about it?”

Two residents of the adjacent John C. Anderson apartment building said the dust was going through the air conditioning units and into the rooms, making people sick.

I finally ended up at the doctor with an unknown ailment,” said one of the residents of the Anderson apartment, “ending up on a steroid inhaler, when I do not have allergies and I did not have the flu, because of white dust that I was inhaling repeatedly. And when I asked, please, please help me or stop, I was told in very colorful expletives to mind my own business and go back to my own property by the people that were working for you.”

Wankawala insisted they have obtained the proper permits for the demolition and the contractors they had hired were reputable, though he couldn’t immediately name the company during the back-and-forth of the heated meeting. Councilman Mark Squilla later said that it was a sub-contractor that was hired by the general contractor who was not following the proper precautions.

The community suggested a good start to making some sort of amends would be to cover the open windows to mitigate the dust that leaves the building, but the resident of Spruce Street went even further: “[By] hiring real people, paying them real money to get the job done the right way so that the public is safe from what you are doing. This is a safety issue.”

Later, a woman read a sobering letter written by neighbors pertaining to the state of the neighborhood during the last four years of the Parker Spruce, since The Wankawala Organization started managing the building. She prefaced it by saying, “I do think that you expected to get a little black and blue tonight while you were here.”

The letter labeled the hotel as “repulsive” and said that the empty rooms “were rented to pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, and any other lowlife person who walked inside any hour of the day or night.” The lengthy letter didn’t mince words: “We don’t want you as our neighbors anymore. We wanted a new beginning for this property. We deserve it and our community deserves it.”

Moving Forward: A Matter of Trust?

“We see this as an opportunity now,” said Councilman Mark Squilla to Wankawala, attempting to look forward to the project’s future. “You could be a hero to this neighborhood, but right now, you’re the villain.”

At the suggestion of Councilman Squilla and the community (and in order to begin to build some semblance of trust), Wankawala agreed to provide all the necessary contact information for the contractors that will be working on the site. He also agreed to post a sign on the building that would boldly display his company’s name, a phone number and an email address for a point of contact. The length of time it would take a response to be answered would be listed on the sign as well.

State Representative Brian Sims was also in attendance, and he also didn’t hold back in his assessment of The Wankawala Organization and its project, saying, “You came here four years late …  I agree with most here, I don’t trust you guys. I don’t at all.”

Ultimately, after a deposition-like exchange with his attorney, Wankawala gave the community what they seemed to be seeking from the very beginning: an apology. Said Wankawala:  “Yes, I do apologize to everyone for the last four years and any problems, issues that have happened to you because of the Parker Spruce, because it was under my management. I do sincerely apologize again. We want to be a good neighbor. We are looking forward to working with all of you and we are here for a much better and brighter future and [look] forward to making this building great again.”