Last January, representatives from Horsham-based suburban real estate developers Toll Brothers revealed their design for a 29-story, 115 unit apartment building that would replace five historic buildings in the heart of Jewelers Row to the Washington Square West Civic Association. Despite a call from Mayor Jim Kenney to “preserve the buildings’ second and third floor façade,” and promises by the developers to neighbors and preservation activists that they would consider preserving elements of the existing historic buildings, the 2017 presentation revealed an entirely new tower, nearly twice the 16-story height that they had initially planned.
The original design, by New York-based SLCE Architects, featured a brick, metal and glass base divided into three bays with commercial space on the ground floor. The building was set back at a set “cornice line” which aligned with the historic structure on its western side. From the setback, the tower, faced in brick veneer and glass on the north side, soared up uninterrupted, topping out around 400 feet. That proposal was met with criticism from the public and prompted another public statement from Mayor Kenney stating that “the news that Toll Brothers intends to double the height of its Jewelers’ Row project and that they will not maintain the second and third floor façades is deeply disturbing.”
Last night, representatives from Toll Brothers and SLCE Architects presented a revised plan to the Washington Square West Civic Association following attempts over the past year to resolve discrepancies with the zoning code and the height of the 29-story plan. Adam Lemple from Toll Brothers City Living introduced the team representing the real estate firm, which included Toll City Living division president David Von Spreckelsen, Paul Albano of SLCE Architects and James Davidson, design partner from SLCE Architects, who presented the design.
In the new proposal, the tower is five floors shorter, topping out at 24 stories and sheathed only in glass. Additional incremental setbacks have been integrated, creating more of a stepped effect. The storefronts at the base are now divided into four bays, as opposed to three, which are meant to better “reflect the rhythm of the street,” according to representatives of the suburban real estate developer.
Some logistics have also changed: the base of the proposed tower will now spans six existing lots from 702-714 Sansom Street. The acquisition of the property at 712-714, which will not be demolished or altered in any way, allows Toll to use additional air rights to configure a 24-story, 85 unit tower after L&I requested more information to approve the “unity of use” argument that would have enabled the 29-story plan. The new plan allows for a maximum of 85 units and tops out at 307 feet, about 100 feet shorter than the previous proposal. The company noted that refuse from all frontages will be held in the cellar and collected via the 7th Street loading dock. The presentation also included a shadow study and briefly discussed the valet parking system.
In an attempt to address previous critiques, a significant amount of the presentation was devoted to the cornice line of the base of the building, which was adjusted to match what Davidson referred to as the “truly historic building…at the corner,” meaning the landmarked 700 Sansom Street, which is one of the original Carstair’s row colonial style row houses. A trellis, extending above the cornice, is meant to tie in with the higher cornice lines of other surrounding buildings.
The base of the building was also lowered to three stories and is now divided into four bays instead of three in order to better keep with the scale of existing buildings on the street. Real brick will be used on the storefront façade. Davidson pointed out that by keeping the amount of brick relatively low, the company will be able to spring for “interesting” brickwork that will better tie in to the existing fabric of Sansom Street.
According to Davidson, the elimination of brick veneer from the tower portion of the building allows the glass to “fade into the sky.” Showing rendered views of the tower from Washington Square Park partially obscured by trees, Davidson stressed that it was intended to be a “background building” that “doesn’t call attention to itself” and instead helps recognize the strengths of other historic buildings in the neighborhood. Overall, Davidson claimed, this is a “very delicate footprint of a tower” which will be topped with a “subtle crown” of faceted glass reminiscent of Art Deco style.
The presentation was standing room only, with a number of local residents, preservationists, building industry and union members present. Before opening the discussion to board members and then public, it was emphasized that only questions and comments related to the design of the building would be addressed.
There was minimal commentary from the board, although members questioned the logistics of accommodating large moving trucks through the 7th street loading dock, the reflectivity of the glass and its impact on surrounding buildings and the park, and the flexibility of the first floor retail space.
Public comments centered upon the retention of the existing historic facades. Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, asked whether or not the developers had considered preserving the façades, to which Davidson responded, “Yes, we’ve considered it, and we’ve gone in another direction.”
Responding to a reference to the “cacophony” of styles on the street, Rosanne Loesch, president of the Society Hill Civic Association, was met with applause from some of the crowd when she said, “I think the cacophony is really what we all wanted to preserve on Sansom Street… what you’ve presented completely destroys the fabric and integrity of the street.”
As the meeting wrapped up, another attendee called out from the back “Design looks great! Better than last year!” and was also met with applause.
Toll Brothers will present their updated proposal to the City’s Civic Design Review board on Tuesday, February 6 at 1:00 p.m. at 1515 Arch Street, a requirement of the developers’ conditional zoning permit. Nominations for three of the threatened historic buildings were tabled by the Philadelphia Historical Commission shortly following the developer’s application for demolition permits for the five properties after commissioners repeatedly declined to vote to approve the nominations, despite recommendations from the Historical Commission’s own Designation Committee. A nomination for a Jewelers Row Historic District, including the threatened properties, was also submitted by the Preservation Alliance to the Historical Commission last year.
In December of 2016, the Preservation Alliance filed an appeal with L&I on the grounds that the nominations for 704 and 706-08 Sansom Street were submitted before L&I had issued Toll Brother’s permits, asserting that the properties could still by protected by the Historical Commission. As reported by PlanPhilly, other grounds for the appeal argued included that the real estate firm did not properly post its zoning permits on the affected buildings and that historic designation should apply to the entire tax parcel—not just an individual building on it. Among those testifying against the Preservation Alliance was Jon Farnham, executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. The appeal was denied in April 2017.
But the Preservation Alliance plans to submit another appeal. According to a report by Inga Saffron at the Inquirer, “A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge is scheduled to hear arguments on Feb 28 surrounding the preservation group’s argument that the 128 S. Seventh Street property should have qualified for historic protections, amid other claims.”
Toll’s representatives declined to provide a project start date upon request.