By Thomas J. Walsh
One can safely tell that a hearing will be long when groups of men in dark suits start appearing, each carrying, or dollying, large boxes of documents.
That was the case Thursday, when the Philadelphia Licenses & Inspections review board met for a fifth and final time to hear further testimony protesting an approval by the Philadelphia Historical Commission that would pave the way for a 16-story condominium project on Washington Square.
The board is expected to make its decision within the next two weeks on the Dilworth House, a tower that would be developed above the existing colonial revival home of the same name on South Sixth Street, built by Mayor Richardson Dilworth in the 1950s. It’s next door to the historic Athenæum of Philadelphia, a 19th century architectural and design library, and plans for the tower would join the buildings with a dedicated floor for the Athenæum’s use. The plans call for keeping much of the original home intact.
Architect Robert Venturi designed the unique grafting of the historic buildings with the new tower for developer and owner John Turchi. It has been unanimously approved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission after modifications were made to the design, but the Society Hill Civic Association and John Gallery, director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, have been vigorously fighting the ruling.
Longtime Philadelphia planner and development executive Craig Schelter, who was present Thursday as Turchi’s planning consultant, said it would be built in the same context as the much-larger St. James, a 45-story luxury apartment building on Washington Square’s north side that was also built adjacent to, and above, historic structures on Walnut Street.
The approval and appeals process has been ongoing for about four years. Turchi bought the Dilworth building in 2003, and originally wanted to refurbish the rear of the house and renovate other portions for a single home (the building has not been used as a residence since the 1970s). In 2005, plans for the Venturi-designed tower were announced, to great protest from neighborhood residents. That resistance appears to have abated, but the SHCA, Gallery and various other parties are still fighting the decisions made to change the house’s historic classifications, and the approvals given for the current plan.
Both sides are dug in, said Jon Farnham, the Historical Commission’s executive director, and that was evident early on in the proceedings (“Gentlemen, gentlemen, gentleman,” chided Claire Gatzmer of the L&I review board, interrupting a particularly aggressive bout of bickering). After the L&I board’s decision, Farnham said it’s likely that the losing party would take the next legal step – an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas.
Rich DeMarco, an attorney with the Klehr Harrison law firm, represented a group of neighbors opposed to the development, and Gallery appeared as an expert witness for the group. Neighborhood activist and attorney Paul Boni represented the SHCA. On the other side, cross-examining Gallery and representing Turchi, were Matthew McClure and Neil Sklaroff, partners at Ballard Spahr. Leonard Reuter was the lawyer for the Historical Commission.
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