Civic group, developer reach agreement about future of historic Wissahickon property

A civic group’s efforts to save a 19th-century Roxborough house have led to an agreement with the owner and developer to renovate the property with “historic sensitivity” and thereby maintain the block’s distinctive character.

The agreement came in late July as the two sides were preparing to plead their cases in the Court of Common Pleas over a permit to allow the complete demolition of the property at 145 Sumac Street. The Wissahickon Interested Citizen’s Association was seeking an injunction to revoke the demo permit issued by the Department of Licenses & Inspections on the grounds that it had been issued in the name of the demolition contractor, who had been replaced twice. L&I told WICA that it considers the property owner as the holder of the permit.

The agreement reached by WICA, the owner, developer and the city halts the demolition of the house, which has been described by historic preservation experts as an excellent and rare example of Eastlake Victorian architecture in the Wissahickon area.

Jeffrey Allegretti, a member of WICA who wrote the historic nominations for the house at 145 Sumac and its twin home at 147, said that as part of the agreement the nominations have been tabled. The Philadelphia Historical Commission’s committee on historic designation had voted in June to recommend that the two houses be designated by the full Commission.

The owners of 147 Sumac still live in their home and it is not part of any development plans.

In return for halting demolition of 145 Sumac, WICA also agreed to support a zoning variance application that would increase the number of new homes built on the site by owner John Messing and a development company owned by Boris Kaplun and Eugene Ziverman. Their original plan had called for razing the house at 145 Sumac and replacing it with 10 new residential units. The agreement allows for two more residential units. An attorney representing the owner and developers did not return calls for comment on the agreement.

Historic value

If the developer receives the variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the agreement calls for them to renovate the existing house “with historic sensitivity, maintaining exterior design elements that are salvageable,” according to Allegretti. “Once the renovations are completed, I will be able to proceed with the historic nominations of both 145 and 147.”

Allegretti said he would be willing to withdraw the nominations entirely if there is a deed restriction that preserves the historic elements of the façade of the Sumac Street property.

In hearings before the Historical Commission, preservation experts have said the twin homes may have been built by mason John W. Gilton, who worked with architect J. Franklin Stuckert on the exuberant Nugent Home for Baptists built in 1896 in Germantown. The Sumac Street homes were built the 1880s on land owned by one of Philadelphia’s more prominent families, the Camacs, and 145 Sumac had belonged to the Holt family, whose mill helped develop the Wissahickon neighborhood. “The Holt House was among the first grand homes built in Wissahickon during the Victorian era of development,” Allegretti wrote in his nomination.

Members of WICA believe keeping the homes intact is necessary to retain the historic fabric and character of the neighborhood.

Risky agreement

There is risk for both sides in the agreement if the ZBA denies the variance, Allegretti said. WICA will lose the ability to change the original development plans, and the developer will have paid for new design plans while delaying the project.

The two sides were in discussion last week on a possible amended agreement that would revert to the original density in order to avoid a ZBA hearing and further delays on the project, Allegretti said.

“This started out as an acrimonious project and process,” he said, “and I have to give credit to the developers. They’re taking a risk here. Every action is a delay that costs them money.”

WICA’s frustration is with the municipal system that lacks a planning overlay that delineates the best use of properties and instead has a labyrinth of both restrictive and vague guidelines.

“We think L&I acted improperly in allowing the demolition permit three times,” Allegretti said. “That is the most disconcerting part.”

PlanPhilly is now a project of WHYY/NewsWorks. It began in 2006 as an initiative of Penn Praxis inside the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Though now part of WHYY, PlanPhilly still works closely with Penn Praxis in covering planning, zoning and development news. Contact Alan Jaffe at    ajaffe@planphilly.com.

 

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