At The Eleventh Hour, Seeking A New Accord At 40th & Pine

 

Levy-Neafie House, Cape May | Photo: Aaron Wunsch

Levy-Neafie House, Cape May | Photo: Aaron Wunsch

As summer temperatures rose and the cares of daily life grew burdensome, the business partners Jacob G. Neafie and John P. Levy brought their families to a porch-bedecked twin in Cape May. Work in their renowned Kensington shipyard doubtless kept the men busy, but surely they were war-weary, too. In 1866, the year their Cape May “cottage” was built, the nation had just emerged from the devastating Civil War that had brought lucrative Union contracts to their firm. But it also brought hundreds of maimed soldiers to Satterlee Hospital, located just down the road from the suburban villa at 40th and Pine Streets where Levy had lived since 1853. For those who could afford it, it was time for a trip to the beach.

Sloan 1

The beleaguered John P. Levy House still stands at 40th and Pine Streets, though a demolition permit was issued last month after the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania upheld University of Pennsylvania’s legal right to raze the mansion | Photo: Michael Bixler

Neighbors, preservation advocates, and the University of Pennsylvania, which owns the historic villa at 40th and Pine, have been locked in a struggle over the building that has lasted twice as long as the Civil War. The details of that conflict need not concern us. The story has so many chapters, players, and plot twists it could fill a (depressing) book. But now that sordid tale is nearly over. Last month, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania upheld Penn’s right to demolish Levy’s house, agreeing with the argument by the university’s lawyers that the building was too costly to maintain. The claim of “economic hardship” persuaded the City to allow demolition. The bulldozers are rumbling.

But in this scenario, no one wins. If the house comes down, each side can blame the other and walk away. Court after court has heard the case. The neighborhood group, which raised some valid concerns, lost decisively in the court of public opinion when it spurned a 2013 proposal that would have saved the house and built a five story apartment complex next to it. Some neighbors preferred to play a hand that–during this era of a developer-friendly Historical Commission–had never been especially strong. And they lost.

Equinox Management and Construction unveiled this preliminary sketch in 2013 at a Spruce Hill Community Association zoning committee. The design was a compromise of sorts on the developer's part, electing to build onto and around the Levy House rather than demolish it. The project would have removed the concrete block additions to the 19th century mansion and surround it on three sides with student housing | Rendering: Equinox Management and Construction

Equinox Management and Construction unveiled this preliminary sketch in 2013 at a Spruce Hill Community Association zoning committee. The design was a compromise of sorts on the developer’s part, electing to build onto and around the Levy House rather than demolish it. The project would have removed the concrete block additions to the 19th century mansion and surround it on three sides with student housing | Drawing: Equinox Management and Construction

Now that Penn holds all the cards, it has every right to demolish the building. That’ll show ‘em! But there is still time to do something civic and decent rather than punitive or purely lucrative. Now is the time when the university, whose lawyers routinely cited its educational mission and non-profit status in order to claim economic hardship, could take a cue from its less affluent neighbor, Drexel University, which recently completed the rehabilitation of another Italianate mansion to serve as the Dana and David Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships. That project will receive an award from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia next month.

The Dornsife mansion is roughly the same age and size as the Levy House. Although it has seen fewer alterations over the years, its restoration and adaptation were major undertakings that did not come cheap. But the result was worth the price. Drexel now has a handsome building that will serve, both visually and functionally, as a model of good corporate citizenship.

Vanquishing an old foe seems like a hollow victory in comparison. Penn itself helped develop plans that would have saved the 40th Street mansion. Many neighbors supported this plan. The developer of that project, Equinox Management and Construction, has shown a real willingness to listen to neighborhood concerns. If the Equinox plans were feasible in 2013, they are feasible now. The neighbors, for their part, could compromise by supporting the reinstatement of that scheme. It is time for serious diplomacy, not finger-pointing, legalistic jargon, and endless recriminations. The Levy-Neafie House, which still stands in Cape May and is available for summer rentals, could serve as Camp David. True, a thick wall runs down the middle. But that is probably for the best.

About the author

Aaron Wunsch is an architectural historian and assistant professor in Penn's Graduate Program in Historic Preservation.

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11 Comments


  1. Are you serious? When you are close to the finish line, are you going to stop and wait instead of crossing the finish line? The neighbors had plenty of time and they overplayed their hand which is why they are in the position they are in right now. Lesson to be learned is think hard before overplaying your hand.

  2. This is very important. Thank you.

  3. Concerned Neighbor

    Don’t blame most of Woodland Terrace. There are a few people there that essentially terrorized their neighbors throughout this entire process. They lied throughout the negotiation and did not negotiate in good faith. Penn showed incredible patience frankly in the face of this insanity. Personally I think the folks involved in opposing this do not have the neighborhood’s best interests at heart. They don’t even care about the mansion. They just want to stop Penn from building over some warped sense of territoriality they have over this site for some bizarre reason. They live in the city, but have no understanding of the consensus building and negotiation that is needed to continue to build a shared and positive environment. If they want to pull this mindless nimby garbage they should move to the mountains and build a castle made if ice for themselves. That would at least protect the rest of us from being subject to their insanity…so as the song sort of says…let it go, let it go, for god sake after all these years let it go. Penn let’s build this building and move on.

    • West Phil Resident

      Ah, yes, those who use the NIMBY argument are out and out saying that people should have no voice in what happens in their own back yards. What a brilliant position to take on urban residential community development–silence the voice of the community in which the development is to take place. This isn’t “negotiation,” this is bullying and silencing done only in order for a small group of people to make big profits, who do not care in the least how it destroys the neighborhood. Greed is a social illness.

  4. West Phil Resident

    It isn’t really that such developments are popular with West Philadelphia residents. It’s that one neighborhood organization, led by a small group of wealthy real estate agents, developers, their lawyers,and owners of multiple properties have formed a rather unholy alliance as representatives of “the neighborhood”, and no one can get a word in edgewise at this point nor does this little group have any intention of ever stepping down after some 30 years of hegemony. Since their view perfectly aligns, unsurprisingly, with that of big development, there is little to be done but watch horrified from the sidelines as the two groups conspire. Meanwhile, many of us have admired our Pine Street neighbors as they valiantly fought against this powerful combination, and even if they lose, they have given us hope that these forces for reckless development can be slowed if not, as yet, halted, before it’s too late.

    Many of us are increasingly concerned with how Penn, our “neighborhood association” and developers are running roughshod over the area with no attention to planning for urban density or for the character of the neighborhood. Developers shouldn’t be allowed to build high-density structures without a careful accounting for the necessity of such big buildings as well as how they will substantially impact the infrastructure–parking, traffic, schools, services, trash/litter, environment, and the always delicate and very important balance of homeownership to transient populations, for the homeowners stay and invest in neighborhoods; they are the ones who make it safe and lively and who patronize local businesses year round. Many cities are now suffering from building without planning for density. That ruins flourishing neighborhoods, drives homeowners out, leaves neighborhoods in blight.

    These developer-run commercializations of a residential neighborhood are something to be feared, not welcomed. They are alienating and displacing the very homeowners that Penn worked so hard to recruit, who are what brought stability, lower crime rates, and success to this area. Now that Penn students are no longer terrified to step off campus, that should not be taken as a sign by Penn that the best response is to begin destroying the very things that have caused the Penn area to be attractive and safe to students and their parents. Don’t overlook the history that led to the area’s success. An intelligent approach on the part of Penn would be to continue to support the residential neighborhood it invested so much money and time into helping make it happen. Instead, it seems that Penn is bound and determined to ruin what it helped to build.

    When we homeowners go–and go we will, and are, for we are being forced out of the area by these developers and by the lack of attention to infrastructure, from schools to traffic and parking–when we go, this whole neighborhood is going to collapse like a house of cards, and all the money and time Penn put into making it successful is going to be for nothing. On my block alone, three families have put their houses up for sale, unprecedented since the early days of renewal. Penn and the neighborhood association have abandoned us in their blind drive to overdevelop the area no matter the cost to all who live here. All they seem to care about now is big development, and big development only attracts transients and transients bring instability, crime, and blight; they drive out homeownership and invite crime.

    • Dear Neighbor (I presume):

      Thanks for reading my article and offering some valid insights about the way things are heading in our neighborhood; (full disclosure: I live on the 4200 block of Osage). My training is in history and I tend to see things from that perspective — thus my plea to save a house whose historical significance has a tendency to slip off the radar. Of course, the pattern of densification and commercialization (conversion to rental) has a long history in this area, too. The first big wave came about 100 years ago as developers began ripping down suburban villas to erect large, brick apartment buildings. These tended to be 4-5 stories high and of varying quality. They must have struck longtime residents as exceedingly disruptive — which they were. But today I find many of those buildings attractive, and they serve a useful purpose. I would probably like them less if there were many more of them. Happily, Philadelphia saw fit to establish zoning in the early 1930s, which brought the wave of apartment construction to an end. It’s now time for us to use such tools again — to fine-tune them and strengthen them. It is also time to revisit the implications of our city’s tax abatement program and the Nutter-era decision to put the Historical Commission under Commerce.

      What it is not time for is a zero-sum game in which this house serves as a political football. The neighbors who have opposed Penn’s plans now have a simple choice: do they want to see the site developed with the house or without it? To my mind, losing the house does not advance a single one of the “Near Neighbors” professed objectives; it simply opens the way for Penn to build from scratch, perhaps adding more units to their scheme. Am I wrong about this? Then please correct me. But if I’m right, please come round and act before it’s too late. In any case, please stop wrapping your cause in the mantle of preservation. Demolition in the name of preservation is…demolition.

      Aaron Wunsch

  5. Question asked is what is by right status on the site owned by University of Penn? How many floors can they legally build without a variance? If I recall, in the beginning, it was 7 stories proposed and the neighbors objected. Somewhere around, I read that by right was 4 stories and the developer objected due to loss of profit – henceforth a compromise with 5 stories and the preservation of the mansion only to be rejected soundly by the neighborhood group with the fight continuing on and the neighborhood group losing its appeals only to appeal to a higher court.

    Keep in mind, this is graduate housing and targeted to grad students studying at Penn or Drexel. Even short term housing for college professors who do not know how long they will work for Penn or Drexel. Some tenants will be married and others single.

    Yes, having housing keeps the crime rate low and attracts investment which can go farther than Penn’s boundaries. The strident negativity espoused by this so called neighborhood group with its own economic interests and the fear of losing tenants to the new apartment project may be a greater turn off to those who live in the community than the proposed new construction on 40th and Pine.

    • West Phil Resident

      The success of this area has not come from commercial development; it has come from homeowners and small business owners who are repurposing buildings, renovating houses, tending to their yards and to the neighborhood. Commercial development brings transients, as you indicate–people who are here for the short term who have no particular investment in the area. It is a turnoff for homeowners to live next to high rise structures filled with transients. It is attractive to homeowners to live near others who are tending to their properties, with whom they socialize (we have a lot of block parties and a great deal of neighborly social life). Take a few minutes to see what is going on in this area and what has made it successful. It’s children walking to school together, growing up together, having reunions on the PAS playground during their college breaks. It’s young couples and singles, rehabbing their houses, having house concerts, some planning children, others planning trips–all tending to their properties and bringing real life and diversity to the area. We do not need any more big impersonal buildings filled with transients. That is going to hurt the area, not help it. Has anyone proven that there is even a need for further housing in the area? Has anyone done a density study to see what the influx of transients is going to do to the neighborhood? I’m guessing not. I’m guessing instead we’re going to bat around ungrounded opinions and, like DC and other such uninformed development, end up dealing with the awful fallout from lack of planning. Penn should be smarter about this, for they are shooting themselves in the foot by not doing their homework. Why they would jeopardize their own success is beyond me.

  6. Time to move on

    I am a concerned neighbor who has been following this for a long time, and nothing has been more frustrating than watching my neighbors snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. U Penn initially wanted to tear down the mansion and build an 11-story hotel. The small group of neighbors fighting this got Penn to agree to scrap that plan, agree to restore the mansion (which is now a nasty, deteriorating eye sore on an important commercial corridor), agree to build a residential structure instead of a hotel, and agree to limit the height to 5-stories. This obviously should have been viewed as a huge victory, and for 99% of the community it was. The neighborhood fought powerful Penn and we won! However, a handful of people have apparently become so drunk on fighting the University that they refuse ANY compromise and offer no solution except to drag this fight on in court for years and years and leave the rest of us to have to deal with a dark, blighted eye sore in the mean time. (And expecting Penn, which has already invest millions in the property and related legal fights, to turn this into a single family dwelling, is not a realistic compromise at this stage of events.) At this point, no one can meaningfully fault Penn for moving forward without the neighborhood. They tried to find a mutually agreeable solution; they offered a very reasonable compromise; but the litigants wouldn’t stop litigating. So the mansion is coming down, and it has nothing to do with elite interests or “unholy” conspiracies between wealthy institutions. No one is to blame except the handful of people on Woodland Terrace who couldn’t recognize a clear victory when it when it was offered to them and refused to stop litigating.

    • As soon as you call that part of 40th St. an important commercial corridor I think its clear you haven’t visited the area in lets say—-50 years! And your opinion of a few people drunk with power might be true, but I’d say its Penn that’s had too much to drink. They buy this place knowing full well it was listed as Historic by the City, they do absolutely nothing for almost ten years, they never tried to sell it, never make any proposals, nothing. Then out of the blue, with no conversation with the neighborhood, they want to build an 11 story hotel. Talk about drunk on power. But at the root for many of us, regardless of the court fights, was the basic issue of how Penn, which as you point out probably has spent millions on this property, Penn who has billions, yes billions of dollars under their control, decides to say this property is a hardship for them. I disagree with your take that Penn tried to compromise; I’d say it was the court case that got them to at least think about a different option, but Penn never tried to have a meaningful conversation with the community. I guess its easier to spend dollars in court.
      And what do you say to the agreement Penn had to not go west of 40th St. (this came out of the fights in the early 70’s)
      If the neighborhood is so ready to have student housing on that corner, which I don’t think hardly anybody really wants, why does Penn need to build it, thru one of their proxies of course. Why can’t they sell the site and let the new owners go thru the process of getting approvals for a similar building.
      I’ll go out on a limb and say its because that would have a zero change of happening. So Penn uses its power, influence and money to get what the open market would never accept. Again I’ll say its Penn that’s drunk with power.

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