It would be an exaggeration to claim that Mayor Jim Kenney won his post on a preservation platform. Philadelphia is a sprawling metropolis that struggles to improve its schools, parks, and infrastructure—causes to which the mayor has already devoted himself to good effect. Yet, those of us in the preservation world who supported his candidacy had high hopes. These stemmed from published interviews and public statements and from Kenney’s own initiatives while on City Council, particularly a bill he introduced that would have dramatically increased the number of properties on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and grown the Historical Commission’s budget.
Even before last month’s announcement by a suburban real estate development company, Toll Brothers, that it plans to demolish 702-710 Sansom Street, a sizable chunk of Jewelers Row, in order to build a 16-story luxury condominium tower, some preservationists had begun to doubt the Mayor’s commitment to protecting the city’s historic fabric. Why had the Historical Commission’s budget, which lags far behind those of peer cities, still not been increased? Where were the new historic districts that candidate Kenney had declared a citywide priority?
The Jewelers Row crisis has given focus to these questions. Toll Brothers’ still-nebulous proposal—no renderings have been released to the public—jolted us out of a complacency that architectural historian David Brownlee and architect George Claflen aptly summarized in the Inquirer: “We thought, surely its small-scale business bustle is safeguarded by appropriate zoning, and its quaint charm must have earned it protective historic designation.” Turns out that City officials had approved the highest-density classification available, CMX-5, for that block. And though Jewelers Row is on the National Register of Historic Places and is adored by city residents and revered by tourists, it somehow escaped local protection—the properties were not listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
So far, Mayor Kenney has avoided speaking publicly on the project, but that hasn’t stopped other City officials from doing so. The script goes something like this statement from Kenney spokesperson Lauren Hitt to Hidden City Daily managing editor Michael Bixler on August 12:
“Given our current laws and codes the City had no choice but to approve this project. This is all by-right and above-board. 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.”
Let’s parse these propositions briefly, starting with “by-right and above-board.” Er, not so much. Although Toll is legally required to post zoning notice of their demolition plans on all five of the effected buildings, “along each street frontage (unless impractical) in a place and manner conspicuous to the public,” they posted a single notice in an obscure location on 7th Street. A hasty pedestrian could be forgiven for thinking Jewelers Row itself was safe. Then there’s the small, but telling detail of the sales agreement forms Toll Brothers presented to the clerks at the City’s Department of Licenses and Inspections. The developer submitted only the first page of the agreements and employed the name of a reputable real estate broker without her knowledge or consent. Whether the plan can move forward “by right” is also unclear. Close review of the Toll Brothers proposal reminded City officials that the size of the 107,000-square-foot building they proposed had triggered the Civic Design Review process, which will occur later this fall. Technically, this is still a “by-right project,” but one that must clear a significant administrative review hurdle before approval.
Then there’s the matter of a recent court ruling. After hearing a case involving 4046-4048 Chestnut Street, the Common Pleas Court released an opinion on law governing demolition permits, reversing a long-held interpretation of the law that allowed submitted demolition permit applications to trump nominations to the Historic Register. The Court’s opinion, instead, says that once a property has been submitted for nomination to the Historical Commission the property in question is legally under the Historical Commission’s jurisdiction until the Commission votes on the nomination. Where does that leave 704 and 706-708 Sansom Street, both buildings of which have been nominated to the local register?
With adequate time and space, one could use charts and tables to show how the City created what has become a perfect storm on Jewelers Row. One could point out that the City ignored its own planners’ 2013 recommendation that the block be downzoned or that the City’s tax abatement program is the taxpayer-borne perk that has made the proposed project so lucrative. (It’s worth bearing these Big Government measures in mind next time you hear the high value of Jewelers Row lots discussed as if the property values had blossomed in a market vacuum.) But, more crucially, the City now has the tool it needs to mitigate a pernicious effect of these measures. The case of 4046-4048 Chestnut Street, in the Common Pleas Court, was the first to actually read and interpret the City code. The Court found that the correct interpretation of the City code amounts to a stay of demolition for historic buildings—enough time to evaluate their significance and issue protections if warranted.
Here is where Mayor Kenney has the chance to demonstrate his preservation bona fides. Over the last decade, the Nutter administration built a track record of using the Law Department and the Historical Commission to quietly support applications to demolish buildings protected by the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Sometimes these cases turned on “economic hardship,” sometimes on “public interest,” and sometimes on technicalities. But the aggregate result was the same, and it wasn’t pretty. Now that we’ve elected a preservation-friendly mayor and declared ourselves a World Heritage City, we’re positioned to ask for something more. Watching City staffers become de facto members of developers’ legal teams was always unpalatable. Now it is also unacceptable.
How might Mayor Kenney set out to assure preservationists that a new day has dawned? He could begin by urging his Law Department to accept the Common Pleas Court opinion instead of fighting it. He could ask them to interpret it broadly. And that’s only the beginning. Back in 1983, when developer Richard Dilsheimer wanted to demolish historic structures on the 1600 block of Locust Street, then-City Councilor John Street introduced a bill that downzoned the area. Could Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district includes Jewelers Row, accomplish something similar with adequate mayoral support? Precedent suggests he could.
There are other options, too. Cities like New York use a legal tool known as Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) to allow preservation-minded horse-trading. If Philadelphia adopted something similar, the City could encourage Toll Brothers to build its tower in another location (there are empty lots nearby) and use TDR to sweeten the deal. Finally, it is worth remembering that while Toll Brothers has purchase agreements on the Sansom Street properties, they have not yet acquired them outright. This limits the company’s exposure, and it likewise raises the possibility of the City buying out Toll Brothers’ interest at a relatively low cost.
Now, let’s return to another party-line claim, namely “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.” When you stand before 702-710 Sansom Street what you see is a vibrant commercial row accommodating the sorts of small businesses and mixed uses that politicians and planners have claimed to embrace since the publication of Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. What you don’t see is anything like a uniform cornice line that might serve as the basis for ersatz contextualism. With effort, one could argue that the cornice on the leftmost building, 700 Sansom (which is the oldest of these buildings and is not part of the proposed development), provides such a datum. But doing so ignores the very heterogeneity—social, architectural, and chronological—that makes Jewelers Row so appealing. While Philadelphia has a long tradition of rebranding itself as an 18th century theme park, most of its historic fabric is a product of the 19th century and the Gilded Age, which left the city studded with unpolished gems.
The buildings at 704-710 Sansom Street show the firm of Collins & Autenrieth designing increasingly exuberant facades for client Henry Charles Lea, American publisher of Gray’s Anatomy and other important works. Before Jewelers Row obtained that moniker in the early 20th century, it was a denizen of printers of national renown. As the National Register nomination observes, “Though many of the founding companies are no longer in existence, the discarded buildings recall the personalities and optimism of the giants of industrialization.”
On Jewelers Row, the social and the architectural are inseparable. In addition to the artistic merit of their façades, the buildings Toll Brothers has placed in the crosshairs contain the small, but versatile spaces in which jewelry makers and jewelry sellers thrive. (Inga Saffron, among others, has written compellingly on the subject.) There is no doubt that Internet and shopping mall sales have cut into these sectors’ profits, but there is also no question that many of the practitioners want to stay. At several public meetings, spokesmen for the Jewelers Row Association have insisted that a vast majority of their members favor Toll Brothers’ scheme. But these numbers are likely misleading, in part because they are weighted toward building owners rather than tenants.
The Toll Brothers’ rumored plan to assist displaced jewelers rings hollow. Even if the craftspeople and retailers who occupy these spaces were temporarily relocated and promised future accommodation in the new building, their delicate economic ecosystem would be compromised. And even if they somehow bounced back, the neighborhood would be irreparably changed. Would the street life come back, too? What would keep similar towers from rising elsewhere on the block? Would residents of the new towers shop at these stores? Whatever the answers and no matter how desirable the promotion of economic development may be, it is fair to say that Jewelers Row’s value transcends the wishes of immediate title-holders. As Philadelphians, we, too, are stakeholders, and we deserve leaders who champion public interests as well as private ones. Mayor Kenney has made precisely this case while promoting his soda tax. Will he apply it to Jewelers Row, and to historic preservation in general? Only time will tell, but time is also swiftly running out.
About the author
Aaron Wunsch is an architectural historian and assistant professor in Penn's Graduate Program in Historic Preservation.
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