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.”
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.