Frustration, opposition from Jewelers’ Row at community meeting on Toll Bros. plan

On a good day, the Washington Square West Civic Association’s zoning meetings attract a crowd that just barely breaks into the double digits. Sometimes the zoning committee outnumbers the attendees.

That was not the case during Tuesday night’s meeting, where debate raged over the fate of Jewelers’ Row for more than an hour and a half. There were about 70 attendees, not counting the representatives of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Councilman Mark Squilla, or the members of the zoning committee.

A show of hands at one point revealed that roughly 70 percent of the room lived or worked on Jewelers’ Row. No one spoke on behalf of the Toll Brothers project, which would demolish a brace of buildings—702-710 Sansom Street—at the southeastern corner of the small commercial district.

“I’ve heard there are merchants on Jewelers’ Row who are in favor of the development, but you certainly couldn’t see that tonight,” said Paul Steinke, the executive director of the Preservation Alliance, after the emotionally charged meeting came to an end.

The Toll Brothers firm, which is behind the proposed development, did not send a representative. But Jonathan Broh, president of Washington Square West Civic Association, read a statement from the company that stated their intention is to design a project that is contextual to Jewelers’ Row, including echoing the existing cornice line and offering ground-floor retail space for jewelry merchants.

“Despite the by right zoning status of the project, Toll Brothers City Living plans to engage the local community throughout the process,” read Broh, whose architecture firm has worked with Toll Brothers in the past and who plans to recuse himself from any votes related to this controversy. “We are committed to delivering a residential building that is respectful of the history of Jewelers’ Row while rejuvenating it for the future.”

The suggestion that Jewelers’ Row needs a shot in the arm brought howls of indignation from the assembled merchants. Frank Schaffer, who introduced himself as the only diamond cutter in the region, asserted that anyone who thought the commercial district was dying hadn’t ever run a business down there. “This is a viable street,” thundered Schaffer, of FGS Gems at 708 Sansom Street, and who lives on Jewelers’ Row with his family. “It’s a living breathing thing.” He strongly implied that if deal went through, he would leave Philadelphia.

“We’re a community of people, not just buildings that are there,” said Maryanne Ritter, who owns Fine Diamond and Gem Jewelry at 704 Sansom Street. In a theme that audience members repeated throughout the evening, Ritter expressed particular frustration at the idea that Toll Brothers would receive the ten-year property tax abatement while, as she put it, the city ignored taxpayers who’d been working there forever.

“I’ve been on the street since I was 20 years old,” said Ritter, her voice breaking. “It’s a long time. If you stand there and you listen as those carriages go by, when the buses and all the other things go by, they mention us. We’re part of the city, we’re part of the history of Philadelphia. You can’t just wipe us out.”

Councilman Squilla walked a difficult line between sympathy and solidarity with the attendees and admitting that his office hadn’t found an exact strategy or legal option to fight the project.

“You can fight this project, but these people have the ability by the right to build it,” Squilla told the crowd. “The other option is…I did reach out to Toll Brothers, and asked ‘would you be able to work with the community and with the jewelers to come in here, is it possible?”

The crowd wasn’t having that answer. Schaffer asserted that no one could last three years to eventually move into a reconstituted shop in the bottom of a condo tower.  

“So then the answer is no?” Squilla asked, and the crowd roared its defiance.

The councilman said his office was still looking at legal options to delay or stop the development, and that fighting proactively to designate more buildings as historically significant would be important to forestall this kind of battle in the future. But he admitted that route wouldn’t be of any use in this case.

Near the end of Steinke’s remarks, the Preservation Alliance executive director asked the attendees to continue fighting.  He invited the community association to openly declare its opposition and, to general laughter, encouraged them to call their councilman and Mayor Jim Kenney.

“You have clout, the city listens to RCOs,” said Steinke, making note of his battle many years ago to help save the Reading Terminal Market, where he worked for years, from a similar development threat.  “I hope this RCO puts its foot down. Ask the developer to make their investment someplace else. Make your voice known as individuals and organizations. We saved Reading Terminal Market, we can save Jewelers’ Row.”

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