Jewelers Row tenants emptied their stores and packed their boxes in five of the street’s historic buildings on Tuesday with a mix of anger, relief and optimism.
Days before a May 31 deadline to vacate the buildings, one tenant who has worked on Jewelers Row for more than 40 years said she had reluctantly found new premises for her business in Queen Village. Another said he was moving 25 years’ worth of equipment into storage while he considered his options. A third said he has no problem with the redevelopment project that has riled preservationists and is simply moving across the street to a building that isn’t part of the redevelopment.
It’s been three years since mega-developer Toll Brothers proposed plans to demolish the buildings and make way for a high-rise apartment building overlooking America's second-oldest diamond district. In the meantime, there were many howls of protest and several years of ultimately unsuccessful litigation from preservation activists. Now, longtime tenants were finally forced to vacate the buildings, marking the end of an era for the brick-paved 700 block of Sansom Street.
Outside FGS Gems at 708 Sansom, owner Frank Schaffer said Toll Brothers has been pushing him to move out by the May 31 deadline, even though some of his neighbors have been given extensions.
Schaffer, a gem cutter and jewelry maker who has been an outspoken critic of the project, said he has about a month less to move out than the developer first promised, and has been treated with “no respect” by his landlord who he said is more interested in selling to Toll Brothers at the highest price than in helping tenants who have been with him for years.
But after 35 years on Jewelers Row, Schaffer said he’s looking forward to a new business venture as “one door closes and another opens.”
Mostly, he’s glad that he won’t be working on Jewelers Row, where he predicted that the remaining tenants will have their businesses destroyed by several years of construction and then by an expected influx of baby boomers and retirees who he said won’t be interested in spending money on gems and jewelry.
“I’m getting out before it really gets bad down here,” he said, as workers loaded a U-Haul truck with boxes and equipment from his nearly-empty storefront in the latest phase of his multi-day move-out. “The construction will just destroy the rest of the business that’s left down here. Anybody that thinks they can survive three years with a big hole in the ground, and traffic, and cranes overhead – good luck.”
Schaffer expects the new building will be occupied by boomers and millennials but not by the 40 to 55 year-olds who are his target market for gems and finished jewelry.
The five buildings date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries but weren’t able to secure historic designation from the city, which might have saved them from demolition.
Next door to Schaffer’s building, Nick Sama has been running his third-generation jewelry wholesale business, NCS Metals and Jewelry from 706 Sansom, for 15 years. He doesn’t see why people like Schaffer are so upset that the neighborhood is being redeveloped with what its critics see as a project that rides roughshod over historic fabric.
Sama, whose grandfather started in business as a watchmaker in 1942, dismissed the argument that the neighborhood’s new apartment dwellers won’t spend money on jewelry. “They’re going to bring vitality to the street,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of people in that beautiful building, and at the end of the day, it’s definitely going to bring a lot of money to the street.”
Extensive media coverage of the Jewelers Row project has led the public to believe that all the jewelers there are being forced out, whereas it will only affect those in the five buildings, Sama said. “People are calling my colleagues wanting to know if they are still going to be here,” he said. “They think the whole street is turning into Toll Brothers.”
At 704 Sansom, 68-year-old Maryann Ritter, owner of the jewelry business that bears her name, doesn’t pull punches about the meaning of her impending move for the Jewelers Row community.
“My business that’s been here for over 100 years is no longer going to be here on Jewelers Row,” she said. “And the history that enveloped it before it became Jewelers Row is going to be gone.”
Ritter, who has worked on Jewelers Row for 47 years after taking over a company that opened in 1905, is moving in coming weeks to a new office in Queen Village. There, she will have less than half the space she has now but will be able to continue to make and repair jewelry for her customers and do the job she loves.
She’s optimistic that the business will do well in its new location because it will be staffed by the same people who have provided quality service to customers over the years. But she’s not looking forward to the upheaval at her current stage in life. She was given a short extension on her original May 31 deadline to get out, but that’s not going to make the move any easier, she said.
“We not only have to get displaced but also have to, if we want to stay in the business, do the expense of starting all over again,” she said.
Despite the upheaval, Ritter said she has no thought of retiring at her present age, which is when many people are already drawing a pension. “I love what I do, I’m healthy, I can still do it. Why would I want to retire?” she said while inspecting two large-beaded necklaces on her store counter.
She doesn’t fault the building owners who are doing well from selling their properties but wishes they had not sold them to Toll Brothers for building the new project.
“To displace people that have been here forever and that are thriving, for me, this is throwing a monkey wrench into the works. This is unique. This is history,” she said.
Toll Brothers City Living is now in full swing in preparations to build a 24-story apartment tower at Jewelers Row. The company declined to say how many tenants are affected by the project, when demolition will start or when it plans to start construction.
“Toll Brothers is under contract to buy the Sansom Street project from the current property owners,” said spokesman Tim Spreitzer, in a statement. “We have not yet acquired the properties and, therefore, cannot comment on the current tenants or their timeline.”