The $700 million expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center wasn't the only big-ticket item that stalled on what was supposed to be City Council's last session of its term yesterday.
For reasons that were far from clear, City Councilman Brian O'Neill held up two bills that would enable the Fox Chase Cancer Center to begin a billion-dollar expansion onto 19 acres of Burholme Park, which the world famous research center wants to lease from the Fairmount Park Commission.
O'Neill told his surprised colleagues that he'd been asked by cancer center officials to hold the complicated long-term lease bill.
There's also a Fox Chase zoning bill, which O'Neill decided to hold on his own because he assumed that Council will be back for one or more special sessions starting next week. Those sessions will be needed to straighten out the the Convention Center issue.
When asked about the delay, Thomas Garvey, Fox Chase vice president for operations, said, "There are a lot of important details that have to be right and we're working to get them done. That's all I can say at this point."
But Garvey declined to say whether, as O'Neill asserted in Council chambers, Fox Chase had asked O'Neill to hold the bills.
City Commerce Director Stephanie Naidoff was visibly upset by the delay and the possibility that Fox Chase, the city and Fairmount Park might have to start all over again next year if Council can't pass the bills this month.
When he introduced the legislation on Nov. 1 after two years of negotiations, O'Neill said he'd worked out several issues including the traffic impact of adding 1,500 employees. O'Neill said Fox Chase would fund the many traffic improvements.
After O'Neill announced his decision to hold the bills, Council members Blondell Reynolds Brown and Wilson Goode Jr. questioned him.
"We at least need to know why a major project like that needs to be held," Goode said.
O'Neill responded, "I just told you why. I can't give you any more information than they gave me. It's held at their request and they are happy and content to move forward with the second bill [the lease bill] in the next term."
Several of O'Neill's colleagues, speaking only on condition that they not be identified, said O'Neill was attempting to get more money from Fox Chase for community improvements.
O'Neill said he has a community benefits agreement with Fox Chase, which is unrelated to the lease provisions.
His agreement will provide $4.5 million to buy replacement land or do other improvements in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, Naidoff said the lease agreement bill before Council calls for Fox Chase to provide replacement land or fund an escrow account of roughly $4.5 million for the future purchase of park land.
Asked if Fox Chase had been surprised about having to make two large payments, O'Neill said, "That's beyond my knowledge." *