Architects assail Toll’s Jewelers Row tower as it moves towards construction

A third public hearing on the design of Toll Brothers’ much-contested Jewelers Row tower ended on Tuesday with representatives of the developer exiting the room before the Civic Design Review meeting ended, angering a body of architects and design professionals already critical of the 24-story Sansom Street high-rise yet powerless to stop it.

In the end, the developer’s team returned, blaming their premature departure on a misunderstanding, but the meeting, nonetheless, ended on a heated note.

“Engagement means listening as well as talking, and what I’ve heard today is that you’ve done it in New York so you can trust us,” said Nancy Rogo Trainer, chair of the CDR board, an advisory body. “And now I’ve heard a group of people give comments to a design team that is absent. I can’t tell you how insulting that is to this body.”

Before their exit,  the developers faced an array of criticism, from a quiet scolding from architect Cecil Baker to multiple outraged shouts from people watching the public hearing. “This project needs to, has to, look like a jewel,” said Baker, slapping the table for emphasis. “We are giving up a big piece of our history for this building. So we should be getting something that is absolutely a joy to look at.”

The proposal considered at Tuesday’s meeting is substantially different than the one presented in February. Toll Brothers representatives said that the Horsham-based housing developer had tried to respond to the CDR board’s criticisms by breaking up the glass facade on the front and back of the 702-710 Sansom Street building with new architectural details including a row of balconies on one side. CDR members previously complained that it looked like a forgettable commercial high-rise, in part because it lacked balconies. The tower will overlook Washington Square Park.

Originally, brick dominated the building’s facade, as a means to pay homage to the historic 18th and 19th-century townhouse-style structures that comprise Jewelers Row. It even clad the high rise itself in masonry, an  unusual move in contemporary architecture. But each rendering released has contained less and less brick, and the latest version lacks the material altogether, leaving the tower fully cloaked in glass.

On the ground floor, the reflective building now features a line of bays with varying elevations, to pay homage to the mish-mash of styles and cornice lines within the historic block.

“We decided that we would take the same materials as the tower, and extend those down on to Sansom Street while creating a variety of the streetscape—the cacophony—which we actually learned to enjoy,” said lead architect Jim Davidson, a partner at e New York-based SLCE Architects. “There is a lot of breaking up of the facade from one end to the other. Heights that vary from three stories to four stories, setbacks, any number of architecturally interesting components.”

But at Tuesday’s meeting, the criticism from the board and attendees focused on the company’s refusal to preserve the facades of the five buildings that will be torn down to pave the way for the tower.

Paul Steinke of the Preservation Alliance, which has led opposition to the project, gave a speech in favor of preserving the facades.

“This is a vastly over-scaled building that will destroy the charm for which Jeweler’s Row is regionally famous,” said Steinke. “If a project like this is going to be built in this location the facades of those buildings should be retained. We urge the developer to reconsider so the unique scale, form, and appearance of Jeweler’s Row remains intact.”

Despite calls for preservation of the facades from Mayor Jim Kenney and other prominent public figures, Davidson confirmed at the project’s previous trip to the CDR board, that complete demolition was borne of choice, not necessity.  On Tuesday, that point was reiterated.

“We went through various studies about keeping them, and ultimately it turned out that we think it better for Sansom Street that we have a building that respects what’s on Sansom Street and provide a new modern expression of [Jewelers Row],” said Paul Albano of SLCE Architects. “We feel we’ve done everything that we can.”

The buildings are not on the city’s historic register, so there is no legal leverage to preserve the facades. The CDR process itself is advisory. .

“We in Philadelphia have not seen Toll Brothers step up to the plate,” said Baker, to a round of applause from the audience. “We were thrilled when they came into Naval Square it was terrific, but since then Toll Brothers makes us extremely nervous about what they can deliver.”

Soon after that Baker made his point, the meeting dissolved into chaos. The CDR docket was packed and attendees affiliated with the community organizing group POWER, who were there to testify on another project, began to weigh in.

“I want to encourage all these developers coming into inner-cities to put some money into humanitarian efforts,” said one member of the audience. “How about putting money into communities, walking around in your fancy suits and driving fine cars while people around you are dying.”

As the woman’s speech grew increasingly inflamed, the Toll Brothers team departed the room, leaving only their zoning lawyer Carl Primavera to answer the criticisms of board members insulted to have the developer walk out before the meeting adjourned

Primavera said that his clients had misunderstood the process and sought to respond to critiques but the exchange grew exceedingly heated as the team returned to the board room.

“If we can’t do everything, well, how many cases come before Civic Design Review and give you everything you want,” Primavera asked Trainer, as the design team filtered back into the room. “Being here is the process. I think we’ve been respectful.”

The CDR meeting is the last regulatory hurdle Toll Brothers had to cross before moving ahead with the project. The Preservation Alliance appealed the company’s demolition permits as well, and oral arguments in the case took place on February 28. A decision by the board is expected soon, but regardless of the decision, the developer has all the public approvals needed to move forward with construction.

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