Toll Brothers Wants to Tear Down Part of Jewelers Row; Here’s The Basics & What You Can Do *Updated*

 

702-710 Sansom Street | Photo: Brad Maule

702-710 Sansom Street | Photo: Brad Maule

Editor’s Note: Yesterday, the Inquirer reported that a subsidiary of Toll Brothers, the national suburban home builder, has acquired zoning permits for an 80-unit apartment building at 702-710 Sansom Street on Jewelers Row. The proposed 16-story building would replace five buildings that are part of the Carstairs Row development erected in 1799 for William Sansom, the first speculative row house development in Philadelphia. Although Jeweler’s Row has faced a decline in business in recent years, the buildings contain both active jewelers workshops and retail stores. Jeweler’s Row is the oldest Jewelry district in the United States and the second largest; it is one of Philadelphia’s three remaining 19th century commercial districts, along with the Italian Market and Fabric Row, and the most intact. But these buildings, which amount to about one-eighth of Jewelers Row, are not listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and therefore they are not protected from demolition. This proposed project is the latest incursion into Philadelphia by the Horsham, Pa.-based Toll Brothers, which has a history of pursuing demolition and redevelopment of historic properties in the city. Toll Brothers has applied to the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections for a demolition permit; officials there told the Philadelphia Inquirer review should be completed by September 1.

An earlier version of this story reported that “Four of the five buildings are owned by a longtime Jewelers Row figure, Ron Panepinto.” This information is incorrect. Panepinto owns only 702 Sansom. Roberto Pupo is the owner of 706-710 Sansom Street.

Does Toll Brothers already own 702-710 Sansom Street or is ownership contingent on City approvals?

Publicly available records indicate that Ron Panepinto (702), 704 Associates (704), and RP Sansom Street LLC (706-10) are the current owners of the properties. There is no public information available to contradict this.

However it is likely that Toll Brothers has an “option contract” with the owner of each property, which means the giant, multi-billion dollar developer has paid some portion of the sales price–10 percent is common–as a non-refundable deposit contingent upon them getting zoning, demolition, and building approvals. Under an option contract the seller may require an additional deposit of 25 to 50 percent when some of those approvals have been received, but prior to the actual sale. This means that Toll has probably made some financial commitment to project but isn’t likely to own the properties yet. Why does this matter? If the sale had gone through already at an inflated amount based on expected return on the 16 story tower it would be nearly impossible to force them, or any developer, to consider a less dense development that preserves the existing buildings.

Has Toll Brothers presented a specific plan for site, renderings, or a development package?

Toll Brothers hasn’t made any information about the project available to the public, however City officials have received some preliminary details. In an email, Lauren Hitt, spokesperson for Mayor Kenney, wrote: “It’s our understanding that the Toll Brothers are preserving the cornice line, putting jewelers back on the ground floor, and doing a design that is in concert with the rest of the street, but we understand why the preservations are still upset.”

706-708 Sansom | Photo: Michael Bixler

706-708 Sansom | Photo: Michael Bixler

What’s the internal L&I process for review of the demolition permit? What are they deciding?

The review of Toll’s application for demolition permits is routine administrative business of L&I. The 21-day review period is mostly to ensure that utilities are shut off and the properties vacated before demolition. It does not provide the opportunity to review the historical significance of the properties.

How have City officials responded to the proposal?

According to Hitt, “Given our current laws and codes the City had no choice but to approve this project. This is all by-right and above board…The administration is working with City Council to look at our historic preservation ordinance and ways to provide a sustainable and appropriate level of funding for PHC so that they have the resources necessary to designate more local districts and buildings and accomplish their mission.”

Functionally, both elected officials and City administrative officials can do little to stop the demolition of 702-710 Sansom Street. The permit application has been made according to City code. Furthermore, the site’s CMX-5 zoning allows the size, density, and use Toll has proposed, thus enabling the developer to sidestep public or neighborhood review of the company’s plan.

What administrative or political remedies are possible? What can elected officials and administrative departments be asked to do?

This is a difficult question to answer. Although the project appears to be legally by-right, a strong outcry by preservationists may motivate city officials to find a way to delay the proposal, find a different buyer, or significantly alter the project.

Why weren’t the buildings protected?

Though a local landmark, a historic site, a fine example of late 19th and early 20th century commercial vernacular architecture, and a tourist attraction, the City of Philadelphia has conferred no official designation on Jewelers Row; it has been overlooked.

Preservationists assembled a Washington Square West Historic District that has languished in City Council for political reasons. However, had that District been approved–no neighborhood historic district has been designated since 2010–it would not have protected these buildings because the proposed Washington Square West District didn’t include Jewelers Row. As a separate matter, 700 Sansom and 701-7 Sansom (part of the Society Hill Historic District) are listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places; these are the only Jewelers Row buildings protected from demolition.

Jewelers Row is part of the Center City East National Commercial Historic District, and therefore 702-710 Sansom would be eligible for federal historic preservation tax credits were a developer to pursue adaptive reuse instead of demolition. Each of the five properties is listed as “contributing” on the historic district nomination.

What’s been the experience with Toll Brothers in the past in regard to historic buildings?

Most recently, Toll Brothers demolished the former Please Touch Museum building on 21st Street between Race and Vine. The handsome structure designed by Albert W. Dilks for the Wallace Storage and Carpet Cleaning Co. is being replaced by town homes. Late last year, Toll Brothers pulled a demolition permit for the Society Hill Playhouse, on 8th Street above South, with the intention of constructing a residential development. Toll then flipped the property to another developer with the demolition permit still intact. For years, Toll held ownership in the historically registered United States Naval Home at 24th Street and Grays Ferry Avenue. As the William Strickland-designed properties declined, Toll attempted to demolish Biddle Hall, one of the outlying buildings, by neglect. In 2003, after a fire, the City forced Toll to restore Biddle and the other monumental buildings there as part of a multi-family development. Nearby, Toll demolished a 20th century milk processing plant, vernacular industrial architecture, and replaced it with a “loft” building of the same size and mass.

What can I do?

Contact Mayor Jim Kenney at James.Kenney@phila.gov and Councilman Mark Squilla at Mark.Squilla@phila.gov.

Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, has initiated a petition to save 702-710 Sansom directed to the City’s planning and development director, Anne Fadullon. Read and sign the petition HERE.


12 Comments


  1. CMX-5 is what gets to be built at that location and that is a build by right.

  2. I don’t doubt that this proposal (the property consolidation, demo permit application, and new construction plan) is all legal and per code. However, for a project like this, in this location, to be able to be done “by rights” is an epic fail of the new zoning code and the Center City district plan. CMX-5 zoning is totally inappropriate for this particular block, and historic preservation receives scant mention in the new district plans being created. And frankly, any developer hoping to work successfully in an urban setting should be embarrassed by this proposal, “by rights” or not.

    One solution is an immediate demolition moratorium on all buildings over a certain age (50 years is commonly accepted), with the moratorium lifted once we have a city-wide survey of our built resources. This would be helpful not just for preservation, but for city planning, zoning, streets and water departments, transit, etc. We don’t know what we have in Philadelphia, and our long-term planning strategies are severely hampered by this lack of information. No one likes the reactive, scrambling fire drills that result.

  3. I’m surprised this didn’t trigger at least Civic Design Review, and consequently community input, for 16 stories and 80 (likely ‘luxury’) units. The building must have been shown at 99,999 SF in zoning drawings.

    Also, I keep seeing this places and it’s misleading in this intro, too – the buildings up for demolition aren’t part of the original row. I believe 700 Sansom is, and that’s why it’s protected.

  4. Hi Jenna,

    As far as whether 702-710 Sansom are part of the original row, part of them is, and part of them isn’t. We went by the East Center City Commercial District nomination to the national register, which says that they “may be altered or rebuilt.”

    https://www.dot7.state.pa.us/CRGIS_Attachments/SiteResource/H050697_01I.pdf

    And you’re right–only the first floor of 700 Sansom was altered, (it’s listed as “significant,” rather than just “contributing” in the commercial district nomination, and that’s probably why it was on the Philly Register.

    Best,
    Pete

    • Interesting. Thanks for the correction and information!

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a few are part of the original row, just with the facades altered. What kills me is 710 looks suspiciously Furnessian. I can’t find an architect for that address but it was definitely designed in that era and the brickwork is certainly worth preserving.

  5. As a tenant of 704 Sansom Street, what gets me is that these buildings are not decrepit or unused they are all fully tenanted. I’ve been on Jewelers Row close to 40 years and I’ve seen the upper floors go from being all specialty Jewelers to being almost 100% residential nowadays. There are very few places for small Jewelers and artists Studios on Jewelers Row anymore. The people being displaced have been in their Studios for many years and are content to stay there for many many more. And yet we are being put on the street to tear down our buildings when there are so many buildings already being converted to Residential Properties in the neighborhood… The Curtis Center is becoming a residential building, at 7th and Sansom/Walnut, directly across the street from this proposed building site. The parking garage at 7th and Chestnut has been sold and is going to be a residential property. Why do they need this particular lot when it is already so clearly devoted to Jewelers Row?
    Why can’t I use the flat eyesore Parking Lot 1 block away at 8th and Market? Once upon a time that property was going to be Disney Quest and that deal fell through – it’s a huge lot with no restrictions and no protests against building there. It’s more convenient to public transportation and shopping than the Jewelers Row location.
    Toll Brothers likes to make the claim that they are not really altering Jewelers Row because their first floor spaces in the new building will be retail and Jewelers are welcome to move back in. But it’s going to take about two years or so for the construction where are the jeweler’s supposed to go in the meantime? And when this property is finished what small Studio Jewelers that exists there now will be able to move into these new properties and retail locations? And all of the studio Jewelers and artists who are currently occupying the upper floors… Where will they go? There’s no need to tear apart Jewelers Row.

    Philadelphia Prides itself on being a city of neighborhoods and yet repeatedly rips traditional long-standing neighborhoods apart with no regard to tradition and long-term tenants already in place. This location is a stone’s throw from this nation’s seat of Liberty – Independence Hall… Paul Revere was a silversmith!

  6. Michael McGettigan

    When poor people vandalize buildings, commit crimes and do other shameful things, we publicize their identities and mug shots. Should this not also apply to the Toll Brothers crew, who are vandalizing a neighborhood for short-term gain, without regard to others, or our city? And this is not the first time for these repeat offenders.

    https://www.tollbrothers.com/investor-relations/executive-biographies#RobertToll

    Are they on local boards? Where do they live? Who in this city can influence them, not with dollars, but with their strongly stated promise to banish them? Can Mayor Jim Kenney and our other elected officials speak out, and find the courage to defy greed in defense of the city they have pledged to protect?

  7. What about Councilmanic privilege?
    Councilman Kenyatta Johnson allegedly can get his friends land for cheap in his district and block purchases from his adversaries, yet Mark Squilla can’t do anything about a project that will completely change the oldest jewelry district in the United States?

    (http://www.philly.com/philly/news/politics/20160507_Lawsuit_against_Kenyetta_Johnson_coming_to_trial.html)

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