Post last updated August 6, 2013 at 3:24 p.m.
Checkers Drive-In Restaurants Inc. will not be opening a franchise at the site of the endangered Engine House No. 46, a representative for the fast food chain confirmed to Hidden City today. Concerns arose last week after a site plan on Cedar Realty Trust’s web site revealed a schematic which included a Checkers on the site of Engine 46, following the closed-door meeting between Cedar, Councilman Mark Squilla, and Pennsport Civic Association.
Representatives for Cedar Realty Trust, which owns the Riverview Plaza on Columbus Boulevard, did not present concrete plans for future development at the site during last week’s meeting. According to Councilman Squilla and Pennsport Civic Association president James Moylan, they expressed an openness to look at commercial offers for reusing the property.
However, a leasing brochure at Cedar Realty’s website showed a Checkers in the space currently occupied by the 1894 firehouse (for which a demolition permit has already been filed) and the adjacent building which formerly housed a GameWorks Studio. (Update: The space on the brochure no longer lists Checkers and is labeled “Available”; however, the outline of the Checkers in the schematic is still present.)
The cancelation of those plans was officially confirmed by Jennifer Durham, Checkers’ vice president of franchise development, who stated that the franchisee and landlord had failed to reach an agreement.
However, three additional Philadelphia locations will be opening before the end of the year, she said. A company-owned restaurant is slated to open in September at 2729 W. Hunting Park Avenue in the city’s Allegheny West neighborhood. The plans are part of an aggressive expansion strategy for the Tampa-based chain to saturate the Philadelphia market.
“We’re excited about the Checkers growth surge in this market,” Durham said. “In addition to very compelling returns and low investment costs relative to our peers, we are at a television media tipping point with our current restaurant base.”
There are currently 31 Checkers locations in the Philly area. Durham said that an opportunity exists for as many as 100 more to be built, giving the company more leverage to compete with the big three fast food retailers: McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s.
The called-off plans do not necessarily spell the salvation of the firehouse, a 19th-century building immediately recognizable from the I-95 overpass for its Flemish façade. The building had previously been in use as the Engine 46 Steakhouse, which closed its doors in 2006.
No mention was made of Checkers at last week’s meeting; however, Dr. Moylan said in no uncertain terms that a fast food chain “would not be acceptable” to the community.
“I had heard some rumors and informed [Cedar’s representatives] that if they intended to put in a drive-thru, a check cashing store, a pawn shop… that it would really make people upset,” Moylan said. “We told them they need to relook at the demographics of the area and see the booming neighborhood. We want businesses that will enhance the area.”
There is still no confirmation on why the franchising deal fell through, although it appears to confirm a willingness on Cedar’s part to consider possible leases of the firehouse before going through with demolition.
Cedar Realty purchased the Riverview Plaza’s commercial properties from Bart Blatstein’s Tower Investments in 2003. Blatstein constructed the United Artists Theatre complex on the block which includes the firehouse, whose conversion to a restaurant he also oversaw.
Headquartered in Port Washington, New York, Cedar Realty owns dozens of shopping centers in seven East Coast states, including 34 in Pennsylvania, easily its largest market. Local Cedar properties include Academy Plaza on Red Lion Road in the Northeast, Port Richmond Village next to the I-95 Girard-Aramingo exit ramp, and the South Philadelphia Shopping Center at 23rd and Oregon, two blocks west of Checkers’ original Philadelphia location.
Calls to Cedar’s corporate and local leasing offices went unreturned at the time of this article’s publication.