Development news or demolition blues?

Dec. 6

By Matt Blanchard
For PlanPhilly

An Irish development group has striking new plans for the former Parking Authority site on the northwest corner of Rittenhouse Square.

Castleway Properties is planning a mixed high-end hotel, condo and retail project on a T-shaped site on the 1900 block of Walnut and Sansom, according to a presentation book shown to community groups in recent weeks. It would be 525 feet tall, and according to the renderings, not a bad looker.

But left out of the picture, apparently, are three historic structures along Sansom Street that locals just rescued from the wrecking ball in 2004.

These three structures – the Oliver Bair Funeral Home, Warwick Apartments, and Rittenhouse Coffee Shop – all enjoy protected historic status under Philadelphia’s preservation ordinances.

That status saved them in 2004, when the Parking Authority tried to wreck the buildings for a parking garage on the site. In the court ruling that killed the project, Common Pleas Court Judge Matthew D. Carrafiello called the Authority’s justification for demolishing the buildings “incomprehensible,” adding that, “As part of our history, they are irreplaceable.”

Now it looks like Castleway wants to have a go at the Sansom Three.

Castleway bought the property for $36.7 million in June, and on Nov. 13th presented its initial plans to the Center City Residents Association.

The plans show Castleway and its architects, Philadelphia-based KlingStubbins, considering no less that 16 possible site plans and 22 different towers designs, with glass facades accented by copper, terracotta or stone in various designs.

A few of the plans preserve parts of the three structures, but most do not. By the end of the book, the designers seem to have settled on running a pedestrian passageway from Walnut to Sansom, right where the historic structures now stand. The passage would serve as a kind of front garden for a planned high-end hotel.

The project’s mix of high design and historic destruction may divide local opinion.

“We’re not taking a firm position now,” said John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, who has met with the developers.

“Our primary concern is that they’re proposing to demolish on Sansom Street,” Gallery said. “We do not think they have a justification for demolishing those buildings.”

Under Philadelphia law, there are two possible justifications for demolishing historic structures, Gallery said. A developer must show it is financially impossible to reuse the structures, or they must prove that the demolition is “necessary in the public interest.”

While the definition of “public interest” is debatable, Gallery argues that if a public agency like the Parking Authority could not meet that legal standard, it is unlikely Castleway would make it with a luxury hotel and condo project.

“We are highly skeptical that Castleway’s project is somehow uniquely important to the public interest,” Gallery said.

“I’ve told them, maybe 5 or 6 times,” Gallery added. “They don’t seem to be getting the message.”

There are, however, at least two logical reasons why Castleway might push for demolition: Profit and Parking.

According to a zoning analysis in Castleway’s presentation book, saving all three buildings leaves a site that yield 454,890 square feet of built space. Demolishing them all, Castleway calculates, would allow an additional 108,000 square feet – generating no small amount of rental profit in the city’s premier neighborhood.

The demands of parking, too, may militate against the historic trio.

Castleway’s plans promise underground parking and underground truck loading. It’s a concept that should take traffic off the neighborhood’s worry list.

Yet underground parking requires ramps, and those ramps appear to fit on the site only if Castleway undermines the foundations of the three historic buildings.

There’s no sign yet how Rittenhouse neighbors will react.  For now, Castleway appears to be checking the wind.

“Castleway is saying ‘Here’s our current thinking,’” Gallery said. “They’re distributing it to property owners around the site and saying ‘Give us your reaction.’”

Matt Blanchard is a former Inquirer reporter. Contact him at blanchard.matt@gmail.com

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