The lengthy appeal of the demolition of the Levy-Leas Mansion in West Philadelphia came to a conclusion Friday afternoon with the Board of L&I Review ruling to uphold the Historical Commission’s finding of hardship for the University of Pennsylvania and allowing them to demolish the building for new graduate student housing.
The four board members were evenly split on the appeal, which meant the ruling went in favor of the defendants: the University of Pennsylvania, the owner of the property at 400 S. 40th Street; Azalea Gardens, the developer contracted by Penn; and the City of Philadelphia, representing the Historical Commission.
Shortly after issuing its ruling continuing the stay of demolition on Church of the Assumption, the board heard closing arguments from both sides in the case. Paul Boni, the attorney representing the Woodland Terrace Homeowners Association, argued that the Historical Commission erred in its hardship ruling. The Historic Preservation Ordinance states that the owner must show that sale of the property is impracticable and that there is no way to yield a reasonable rate of return through commercial rental. Boni claimed that Penn never made a good-faith effort to sell the property, nor had it been inventive enough in pursuing other uses for the mansion.
However, a property does not need to be explicitly advertised for sale to prove hardship, argued City solicitor Andrew Ross in explaining the Historical Commission’s ruling. There were several means of marketing a property in good faith that the Commission had deemed to be acceptable in previous hardship cases. That sentiment was echoed by Matt McClure, the attorney representing the developers. McClure also emphasized that Penn had explored ample scenarios involving various commercial and residential tenants, all of which showed that the building was incapable of being reasonably adapted for reuse.
McClure and Ross each expressed their pleasure at the Board’s ruling. Yet Boni was far from down and out, citing the 2-2 vote as a validation of his case, which he will continue to the Court of Common Pleas.
“We’re happy,” said Boni. “We’re confident in our arguments and optimistic about the success of our appeal.”
Boni has also appealed the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s decision to grant a variance for Penn to demolish the mansion and construct a student housing complex on the property.
The mansion was designed by Samuel Sloan and constructed in 1855. Preservationists cite it as one of the oldest outstanding examples of Italianate architecture in West Philadelphia.