At CDR Meeting, Final Bell Tolls For Historic Jewelers Row

 

Street view looking southwest of the Toll Brothers’ final design proposal for Jewelers Row. | Rendering: SLCE Architecture

Suburban real estate developers Toll Brothers presented a third version of their plans for a 24-story residential tower on Jewelers Row to the Civic Design Review Committee on Tuesday. The meeting was the final regulatory hurdle required before the Horsham-based firm moves forward with plans to demolish five historic properties on Jewelers Row and replace them with new luxury condominiums.

While the presentation was standard dry fare, delivered primarily by lead architect on the project, James Davidson of SLCE Architecture, the meeting was not without drama. Toll Brothers representatives pitched their revised proposal to a full house, in part due to a later item on the agenda, which drew crowds opposing Temple University’s plans for a football stadium.

Following public comments, the entire Toll Brothers design team stood up and exited the room, despite the fact that members of Civic Design Review Committee had yet to finish giving feedback. Responding to critiques, Carl Primavera, the group’s zoning attorney, quickly took to the podium to field questions as Toll Brothers representatives gradually returned from the hallway. Upon criticism that the design team had essentially walked out of the review, Primavera aggressively assured the crowd and committee of the group’s commitment, stating “They’ve come a long way to answer your questions. Longer than how ever people came to be at this meeting.”

The most recent version of the plan is a departure from the second design unveiled in February 2018. The new design consists of a mostly glass façade broken up into bays with varying setbacks in a manner that Davidson claims reflects the “cacophony” and diversity of styles on Jewelers Row. While perhaps an improvement from the first version presented in 2016, it remains generic and wholly dismissive of the historic streetscape.

Storefront view of Toll Brothers’ tower proposal looking east. | Rendering: SLCE Architecture

Davidson’s explanation of the architectural merit of the proposed tower during his presentation was heavy on metaphors, exaggeration, and generalities. While the historically designated property at 700 Sansom Street was a precious “jewel,” the new condominium tower would present an epic “voyage along Sansom Street.” “You will see that there is a lot of interest, a lot of breaking up the façade from one end to another and a lot of interest,” said Davidson. “We have heights that vary from three stories to four stories, we have setbacks, we have any number of architecturally interesting components.”

This is the final design review required of the real estate firm, a process which ultimately has no regulatory teeth. There is no guarantee that Toll Brothers will improve upon this latest proposal nor are they legally expected to actually build what they have presented. CDR board member and architect Cecil Baker summed up the Committee’s frustration stating, “I don’t trust what I’m looking at.” Baker continued, “We are giving up a big piece of our history for this building, so we should get back something that’s a joy to look at.”

According to SLCE’s new proposal, the tower design “culminates in a faceted crown, which serves both as an homage to Jeweler’s Row as one of the earliest and most vibrant jewel districts in America, and as an architectural flourish for the building and the city.” | Rendering: SLCE Architecture

All three designs of the tower have so far been met with unanimous disapproval and criticism, the specifics of which range from the disjointed choice of materials–the original rendering featured the tower portion partially clad in brick paneling that awkwardly extended to the full 29-story height–to the hypocrisy of constructing a high profile tower in a prime location that project architects claim its best asset as being the ability to “dissappear” into the sky. The lack of obvious amenities, such as balconies, which would take advantage of the tower’s strategic location overlooking Washington Square Park, brings into question the Toll Brothers commitment to investing in a quality product or simply looking to maximize their return.

But there is endless room to criticize the tower’s design. Like all of the suburban developer’s projects, the proposal for Jewelers Row was never intended to be a bonafide design project. As Inga Saffron, architectural critic for The Inquirer has pointed out, SLCE isn’t even really considered a design firm. For Toll Brothers, developing Jewelers Row is simply an execution of their standard operating procedure: buy, develop, profit, and grow. The building itself is nothing more than a means for facilitating this mission.

The real question the public should be asking isn’t,“Why won’t Toll Brothers take enough care to build Philadelphia the architectural ‘jewel’ that it deserves,” but rather, “Why is Toll Brothers the type of company that the City has all but invited, through policy and inadequate protections, to shape one of the most historically significant and sensitive areas in Philadelphia?” Surely this is a confluence of unfortunate circumstances that will have lasting repercussions for our “World Heritage City.” And despite the early, stern public statement from Mayor Jim Kenney, there seems to be nothing anyone can do to stop it.

While the proposed tower may represent unapologetically bad, capital-driven architecture, the Jewelers Row saga in all of its complexity represents a gross failing at the municipal level to support established local businesses and prioritize and protect historic places that people care about deeply. Even worse, the way the situation has played out—from the Historical Commission’s refusal to take a stance on any issue related to the protection of historic buildings, to the forced and ineffective public engagement, to the formation of a directionless and cumbersome Historic Preservation Task Force—risks furthering a collective sense of resignation that we, as a city, can’t figure out how to do any better.

Historic preservation scholars argue that the physical form and design of buildings represent the cultural values of the period in which they were built. In this sense, the proposed tower for Jewelers Row could be said to embody Philadelphia’s values in 2018, a time when city government repeatedly encourages and subsidizes the development of luxury housing at the expense of Philadelphia’s culture and historic character. Sadly, by this definition, the newest Toll Brothers design is right on the money.

About the author

Starr Herr-Cardillo is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona and is a graduate of University of Pennsylvania's historic preservation program. Herr-Cardillo was drawn to the field by a deep affinity for adobe and vernacular architecture. She is gradually being won over by Philadelphia's overwhelming historic building stock and cloudier climate.



9 Comments


  1. “Why is Toll Brothers the type of company that the City has all but invited, through policy and inadequate protections, to shape one of the most historically significant and sensitive areas in Philadelphia?” Precisely. Thanks for an eloquent statement of the problem.

  2. Michael McGettigan

    There is absolutely a way for Mayor Jim Kenney to stop this misbegotten project. The Mayor and City Council have more cards to play, but lack the guts to fight for the working people of Philadelphia.

    Secondly, Philadelphia society, in town and in the ‘burbs, our regional establishment, both cultural and financial, should declare in no uncertain terms that they view what is being proposed as a crime. These perpetrators should be shunned just as we would shun anyone who despoils a helpless victim, who hurts others unable to protect themselves in the bald pursuit of sheer wealth on top of the fortune they already possess.

    The Toll Brothers’ top management should be disinvited from boards, parties, and the like, just as we would turn away from anyone who commits an act of uncommon ugliness. No place of worship should welcome those who worship money over human dignity and human livelihoods. Shame should not be reserved for street criminals or those suffering from addiction to drugs, rather than addiction to wealth.

    Those who would stoop to pick up Toll cash and do Toll’s dirty work should know also that they will be named and shamed and shunned. Toll Brothers’ shabby treatment of our mayor and cynical tactics toward those who are fighting to keep our city beautiful should repel any decent person. In a booming city like Philadelphia 2018, there are plenty of better people to work for do business with and associate with.

  3. Starr, thank you for pointing out the failure of city government to “support established local businesses and prioritize and protect historic places that people care about deeply.” That the Philadelphia Historical Commission is complicit in this by its silence on “any issue related to the protection of historic buildings,” is a travesty. The loss of Jeweler’s Row will be dust on the hands of the Kenney administration, the Philadelphia Historical Commission, and also the Historic Preservation Task Force, I think. The Task Force could have instituted a demolition delay during their proceedings, to allow for more deliberation before historic buildings like Jeweler’s Row are demolished, but over so many months they have asked “what does preservation mean to you?” instead of asking, “what can we do to make preservation as important as new development in Philadelphia?” It’s getting harder and harder to be optimistic for the future of Philadelphia’s built heritage.

  4. Excellent coverage. The CDR circus has now had three full episodes, dating back over a year, each one more bizarre than the last. Also, what is going on with that rendering at the top? It appears to show several front-facing townhouses to the left of the Toll Zombie Tower. It also seems to depict a wildly misplaced St. James apartment tower in the background. Clearly the “artist” responsible for this artist’s rendering has the same level of competence as the “architects” who have brought us the parade of awful renditions of the Zombie Tower. Toll’s customers may someday get to buy on Jewelers Row, but they’ll be buying cubic zirconia at DeBeers prices.

  5. This was a very interesting proposal and the discord drew not only historians opposing the Toll Brothers project, but a loud and aggressive group opposing construction of Temple’s football stadium. The historians had party status and the anti football group DID NOT have party status as the football stadium was not a part of CDR but a Temple building to improve the lot of neighbors was on the agenda. Were those people trying to get CDR to reject the blueprints of the Temple Building which had NO connection to the stadium?

    CDR should have asked the Stadium Stompers to leave the meeting as they did not have party status and the building of Temple on the agenda had nothing to do with the football stadium. Obviously, they were not willing to read the riot act knowing full well Kenny would not have sent police officers over to evict the group and cause a civil disturbance. I am sure the group added nothing to the agenda other than annoy people in the audience.

    Now, what was the decision of the other items on the agenda?

  6. From Philadelphia CDR minutes held last week, six out of 7 projects were approved by CDR and the Temple project was the only project held for further review.

    The Temple project depended on a state grant of 10M (RACP?) before Temple commits another matching 10M. Since it is very difficult to get the full 10M at RACP, it makes it less likely the project will go shovel ready unless Temple was willing to pony up the total cost of the construction.

    Which calls attention to the behavior of the Stadium Stompers in urging the turndown of Temple’s proposal in order to get back at them for proposing the construction of a new football stadium. This project was something intended to help the children of the neighborhood with better service and those people turned down a gift horse for the worse possible reasons. Given that they did not know how the project was going to be dependent upon receipt of a state grant for 10M and that a lot would have to go right for the state grant to be passed and then given to Temple.

    One can get a lot more done by showing respect for others.

  7. It seems bizarre for Toll to be shoe-horning that building into that site when there is so much vacant land within blocks. As you say, the city is eager for new market housing in town so why not try to redirect this building to one of those other sites?

    I know that the company must own or control that site and not the others, but is it possible that the city could offer nearby city-controlled sites instead?

    Or am I being hopelessly naive?!

  8. Well, I must say, despite the jarring contrast to neighboring properties, the new building actually looks quite good, and the shapes of the same height fronting the street are really nice. The remaining question is, will they be occupied by the same tenants as before? After all, it’s not the old buildings themselves, but what they contain that is really important.

  9. If this is suppose to be an example of luxurious living, it must be from the eyes of a pauper. Why doesn’t Toll Brothers open up its design process to the public? If I were a Billionaire, I would go out of my way to not even bypass this monstrosity of poor design in style and taste. Jeweler’s make the greatest cuts of raw material and a hotel that honors them should reflect their exquisite craftsmanship. If I were a Jeweler, I would be highly insulted but I am rather disappointed as a connoisseur of art and beautiful things.

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