On Wednesday afternoon the Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I) issued the demolition permits to raze buildings on Jewelers Row. The move comes in advance of a Thursday morning Historical Commission meeting, where two buildings’ possible designation as locally protected landmarks will be up for consideration.
Controversy has swirled around Toll Brothers’ plan to build a condo tower on the historic commercial corridor since the project was announced this August. Local activists, lead by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, have engaged in a rearguard action to protect the buildings that would be removed to make way for new construction.
In October, the Preservation Alliance attempted to challenge the legitimacy of Toll Brothers zoning permits, but their attempts were frustrated. The Historical Commission is their last chance to stop the project.
“We always kind of anticipated the city would officially issue the permit,” said Patrick Grossi, advocacy director with the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.* “Our zoning appeal was denied. So I can’t say I’m surprised the permit has now officially been issued. Whether it actually means anything for tomorrow’s meeting at the Historical Commission, I don’t believe so. We are going to proceed as planned.”
Jewelers’ Row was included within the Center City Commercial Historic District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. But no protections come with that honor. A local designation, however, would have teeth and could prevent constriction—or at least greatly complicate it.
It remains unclear if any historic designation appended to the buildings after the demolition permit was issued would be legitimate. The Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation voted last month to recommend designation. But because the demolition permit precedes the designation, the Commission will likely defer to precedent and city code, which gives primacy to the first-filed permit. The Commission could also choose to affirm the merits of the nominations without actually voting to designate the properties. But a recent court case gives preservation advocates hope. Earlier this year a Court of Common Pleas judge ruled that a nomination for buildings at 4046-48 Chestnut Street could be granted a stay of demolition even though a demolition permit application had already been issued. In that case Judge Linda Carpenter found an opening to designation in the code despite a preceding building permit application on file.
“The Historical Commission’s decisions on the nominations for 704 and 706 Sansom Street tomorrow will have no effect on the demolition permit issued to Toll Brothers,” said Ajeenah Amir, deputy director of communications with the city of Philadelphia. “The two properties have been under the Historical Commission’s jurisdiction since September 6, 2016, when the Commission notified the property owners in writing that it would consider designating the properties. However, the permit application was submitted prior to the issuance of the written notice and the Historical Commission does not have the authority to review, approve, or deny the demolition permit. Therefore, the demolition permit will remain in effect.”
Toll Brothers initially applied for the permit in early August. L&I then had 30 days to do the initial review of the application, after which it requested additional information from the developer. That requirement was met by Toll on October 27. An L&I plans examiner then reviewed the application to ensure it satisfies the code, which it did.
Toll Brothers has a six-month window after the issuance of the permit to begin work (although a six month extension could also be granted). The next step will be to confirm the demolition site safety plan. As of Wednesday afternoon, that visit hadn’t been scheduled.
[UPDATED 11/10/16 at 4:35pm] “While we are unable to share a more detailed timeline at this point, we can say that demolition is scheduled to start in mid- to late-2017, and the project is expected to take two years to complete,” said Toll Brothers City Living spokesperson Tim Spreitzer in a statement to PlanPhilly.
* Disclaimer: Patrick Grossi sits on PlanPhilly’s Advisory Committee.