Condominiums proposed for Stamper Square site

Toll Brothers wants to build a 70-unit, low-rise condominium on the site of the failed NewMarket development in Society Hill.

The location, between Pine and Lombard streets, near Head House Square, had been the proposed location for several developments over the past several decades – including the controversial Stamper Square hotel/condo development, which died when funding fizzled, and another project by Philly native Will Smith. Nothing has materialized.

If this development moves forward, Toll Brothers plans one- and two-bedroom units with underground parking, said Society Hill Civic Association board member and zoning chairwoman Lorna Katz Lawson.  The development would be built in the shape of the T, with the top of the T running along Front Street.  The building would be no higher than 60 feet and, from Front, would look like a batch of row-homes, Katz Lawson said.

The parcel also includes frontage on Second Street, Katz Lawson said. “They are thinking of having a kind of park-like entry,” she said. The section adjacent to Second Street would be open to the public, but past that “you would come into a security-protected area, and a garden that is private to the condos.”

The security vs. public space element will be the subject of much more discussion before the Society Hill board votes on the project, said SHCA President Steven Weixler.

While the “pocket park” sized parcel on second street would provide a bit of public open space, the development would mostly be closed off, like a gated community, he said.

The condos would come with underground parking, much of which would exist where a former underground garage, which has been filled-in, was located. The grade-level roof of the garage would be green, Weixler said. The public will be able to see it from Headhouse Square, but it will be accessible only to residents, he said.

This is in some ways understandable, Weixler said, because of the parking-garage access to the building and some ground-floor condominiums, but it is not a great fit for the neighborhood.

“To me, this is not an ideal concept for a historic district” that prizes its open greenways, he said.

Weixler said that he’s also hearing concerns that a proposal for property so close to Headhouse Square does not include any ground-floor retail space.

Starting prices would be about $400,000, and would include a parking space, Katz Lawson said. There is some concern in the neighborhood that the price is high compared to other condominiums. “A one bedroom at Society Hill Towers is only $250,000,” she said. “That’s the questionable part of it – who is going to buy these?”

But Katz Lawson said Toll Brothers representatives were confident the numbers would work, based on their experience with other properties, such as Naval Square. Weixler said it’s up to the developer to do the homework necessary to set the proper prices. 

A Toll Brothers spokeswoman told PlanPhilly that it was “just too premature to comment” on the Society Hill project.

In an Aug. 31 article about what home builders are doing to survive the housing market slump, the Wall Street Journal reports that Toll Brothers, “long known as the builder of suburban McMansions, has expanded into urban areas building condominiums, which continue to be some of its strongest performers.”

Society Hill Civic heard about the proposal at its August meeting, Katz Lawson said. Those in attendance were largely positive about the concept, she said. “It seemed clear from the comments that if they took a vote, they would have gotten a positive vote,” she said, and Toll Brothers wanted one.

Weixler said the proposal lacks some of the height, massing and lot-location issues that stirred up neighborhood concern and controversy over the Stamper Square multi-use proposal.

But the board decided no vote should be taken yet. For one thing, many residents were on vacation, and the board thought everyone should have a chance to weigh-in on such an important project. Also, the board wanted more concrete information from Toll Brothers before taking action on the project, which does not yet have a name.

While Toll Brothers made verbal commitments to a lot of things people liked, “we want more assurance that they are going to follow through,” Katz Lawson said.

One area in which Society Hill wants to see follow through is Toll Brothers’ pledge to seek clearance to build higher than current site zoning allows through the Zoning Board of Adjustment, not city council.

When a developer goes through the ZBA, it must put all details of their plans in writing, and the community has a means of appealing the decision. The developer must also reach a development agreement with the community before appearing before the ZBA, Weixler said.

The civic association would feel confident things were moving in this direction if Toll Brothers filed paperwork with the ZBA, Katz Lawson said. They also want to see more details on the plan, such as architectural sections and elevations that show clearly the relationship between the proposed buildings and the existing buildings.

There were some simple elevation drawings, but no renderings showing details of what the development would look like were presented at the meeting, Katz Lawson said.  “What they brought us very extremely preliminary,” Weixler said. “They have a lot of design work yet to do.”

Earlier reports said that Toll Brothers had until Aug. 31 to close on the property. A spokeswoman said Wednesday that they remain under contract.

Weixler said he is not certain whether or not Toll Brothers has firm financing for the project at this point, but they are doing “exploratory surgery” to determine how physical and other conditions could impact cost.

On Wednesday, they were literally drilling core samples to find out what is beneath the concrete slabs left when previous buildings were torn down, Weixler said.

Toll Brothers has been meeting with residents who live near the property to find out about any existing conditions – such as private easements and right-of-ways – that could impact the project, Katz Lawson said.

Weixler said that Toll must also take steps to determine construction costs in a federally and locally protected historic neighborhood. “They must conform to a certain standard, even for new construction, which naturally increases the price of the project,”  he said.

Weixler said that once Toll has more information to present to SHCA, there will be a series of public hearings before a vote on whether to support the project is taken.

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