In a matter of months, five of the storefront buildings that make up Philadelphia’s historic Jeweler’s Row will likely be gone, demolished to make way for a new 29-story residential high-rise.
Karen Guss, a spokesperson for the City’s Department of Licenses and Inspections said that on Dec. 1 a new zoning permit application was submitted to L&I for the construction of a new building. The change found Toll looking to increase the height of the building from its originally proposed 16-stories, to a new plan for a 29-story residential complex.
“Toll has revised the design and now needs a new Zoning permit,” she wrote in an email to PW last Tuesday.
“As is permitted by the current zoning for the site, Toll Brothers City Living plans to build its Washington Square project to 29 stories,” said Tim Spreitzer, vice president at Tierney Communications via email. Toll commissioned the Conshohocken-based full service agency to handle its public relations with Spreitzer, known specifically for his work in crisis communications. “This building height and our plans are in character with other developments in the Washington Square area, and Toll Brothers remains committed to preserving the iconic Jewelers Row streetscape while rejuvenating it for the future.”
A recent Inquirer article, noted that Jewelers Row along Sansom Street is zoned for this type of development, saying the Toll Brothers building “would stand at least 300 feet tall.”
In order to construct the building, Horsham-based Toll Brothers real estate development company plans to demolish five buildings on historic Jewelers Row—though, Spreitzer said that, “While no date has been set to unveil the design at this time, we intend to continue working with the Mayor, the City Council and the community at large as we finalize and refine our project.”
Still, the city will lose 702, 704, 706-08, and 710 Sansom Street as well as a contiguous property at 128 S. Seventh Street—in what is considered the oldest diamond district in America.
Earlier this year, Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia nominated both 704 and 706-08 Sansom Street for the register, citing the former use of the buildings, built by noted publisher Henry C. Lea, as a publishing house and an electrotype foundry. As it stands, only three properties along the row—700, 732-34 and 701-07 Sansom Street—are currently protected by the city’s historic register.
A committee for the Philadelphia Historical Commission initially supported Steinke’s nominations. But on Nov. 10, the full commission decided to table the issue, citing the fact that a demolition permit had already been delivered to Toll Brothers.
But, how did the demolition plan seemingly move forward despite a vocal push to preserve the buildings? Some of it has to do with the procedure that got the demolition permits issued in the first place.
According to Steinke, notice for the application of zoning permits needed for demolition were initially posted only on the building at 128 S. Seventh St., which is a contiguous property to the others.
Guss admitted that how the city handles permit posting can be confusing. Until this year, developers intending to demolish a building had 10 days after obtaining the demolition permit to post on the targeted structures.
But, she said, thanks to a City Council bill passed this year, that “10-day clock” was removed and instead, developers must post a demolition notice on the targeted structure, “upon submittal of an application for a building permit for the demolition of a structure.”
The 10-day clock, she said, now applies to when the demolition permit is applied for. There’s also a requirement for posting of the demolition zoning permits which are necessary to authorize demolition.
According to information provided by the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, Toll Brothers initially applied for the zoning permit for building demolition and a consolidation of the five lots in late July. The developer applied for a demolition permit on Aug. 4.
Around this time, the posting appeared only on the property at 128 S. Seventh St., but not on others, which is why those hoping to save the buildings said they were taken off guard.
“I was shocked. I’m still shocked,” said Jane Thies, 57, who rents an apartment above the jewelry store at 704 Sansom Street.
According to Theis, who has lived on the row for 40 years, when those renting residential apartments along Jewelers Row—a group that Theis said is so tight-knit that they are considering moving as one group into properties on nearby Chestnut Street—saw the Seventh Street demolition notice, they thought little of it.
“That [Seventh Street] building isn’t even remotely historical, so we weren’t surprised to see that,” she said.
But, after Steinke learned that Sansom Street properties were also involved as part of that demolition project, he put together paperwork in the hopes of nominating two buildings to the register. Steinke efforts fueled an online petition that as of Dec. 7 featured 6,904 signatures of largely local preservationists and various other notable supporters.
Going even further back, Steinke cited issues with the permit posting when he attempted to appeal Toll Brothers’ planned project before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals in October.
It was a contentious meeting, according to PlanPhilly’s Jake Blumgart, who said at one point, Toll Brothers’ attorney, Carl Primavera, was even accused by the audience of making racist remarks after he told a Jewelers Row resident—who was of Asian-American ethnicity and had spoke in support of preserving the structures—that, “You are unfamiliar with our culture and our legal process.”
Before the ZBA, Steinke appealed these zoning permits for the demolition of the buildings saying that proper procedure was not followed in this instance, but his appeal was denied.
“That was disappointing,” he said.
In a recent email, Guss said that the ZBA denied the appeal when they determined that there was enough notice to indicate “the parties clearly knew about the zoning permit applications in time to appeal them because they were appealing the permits right then and there [before the ZBA].”
At the time, there was such concern over the demolition permitting process for these structures that Mayor Jim Kenney even got involved, releasing a statement on Oct. 12, stating: “Regrettably, we have reviewed the current law at length, and the developer has proceeded in accordance with City Code.”
“However, I have spoken with representatives from Toll Brothers, and I asked them to go above and beyond what the law requires in preserving the historic nature of these properties,” the statement continued. “I strongly requested that they preserve the second and third floor facades [of each proposed buildings] , and I would also ask that they adopt the recommendations of the Civic Design Review Board. They have given me and Councilman [Mark] Squilla their word that they are committed to maintaining Jewelers Row as a historic, cultural gem for future generations of Philadelphians to enjoy.”
Also, all of the buildings involved now have permit notices posted.
As Spreitzer noted, so far, designs for the proposed project have not been displayed to the public; yet, Toll Brothers will need to present renderings to the Jewelers Row community before any construction can begin.
However, even with all the proposed compliance and playing by the rules Toll has promised to the community, Theis said that she worries the new building will bring the end to what Jewelers Row has been for many decades.
“This is going to be the death knell of Jewelers Row,” said Theis. “It’s not going to revitalize anything. How can you revitalize something by tearing it down?”