Historical Commission kicks designation review for Jewelers’ Row properties down the road 90 days

On Thursday morning, the Philadelphia Historical Commission decided to wait on the nomination for two Jewelers’ Row buildings to become historic because of demolition permits were issued for the properties the previous day. The commission decided in favor of a 90-day continuance to preserve whatever jurisdiction the city believes they still retain over the properties.

But there is a question as to how much power the Historical Commission enjoys over the project. Toll Brothers’ lawyer, veteran zoning litigator Carl Primavera, wrote a letter insisting that the demolition permit is beyond the reach of the Commission and that the body has no authority to designate the properties to the local historic register. The city’s law department agrees with the first point, but not the second.

The Commissioner representing the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I), Michael Fink, lead the charge towards a continuance, rather than a vote on designation.

Fink said any action by the Commission would have little bearing on the issued demolition permits. “All it does is confuse the public that we have jurisdiction over something we do not. And a situation like that doesn’t bode well for anyone on either side. Any action we take is tainted by the fact that we all know there is a valid demo permit in place right now.”

The Historical Commission’s director, John Farnham, said he understood Fink to mean that ruling on the designation on Thursday could suck the commission into potential litigation regarding the validity of the demolition permit.

The Commission then ruled to push off the decision, on both buildings, for 90 days.

Last month the Committee on Historic Designation unanimously supported the nomination of the buildings on Jewelers’ Row. But the committee’s review was limited to historical merit, and the support of the full Historical Commission was always considered to be a much higher hurdle.

Testimony about Jewelers’ Row was heated. About 11 property owners showed up in a group and testified passionately in defense of the Toll Brothers project. Jeffrey Barsky an owner of Barsky Diamonds on Jewelers Row, recalled his childhood memories of the commercial corridor but insisted that it is no longer the vibrant jewelry center of yore.

“There would have been no conversation about a residential tower at that time,” said Barsky. “But the street has changed, just as everything changes. We know that it has become a residential area again. If you look at every building from the second story up where there used to be shops creating and repairing jewelry, manufacturing, there’s now apartments.”

He also decried the vacancies he sees both on Sansom Street and on 8th Street, which he described as now resembling a “third world retail outlet” with no continuity with the past. “It’s not what it was.”

Many property owners in Jewelers’ Row have long described the commercial corridor as a failing business district in dire need of a shot in the arm. They believe that the Toll Brothers project, and the dozens of presumably wealthy families it will bring to the street, could do the trick.

On the opposing side, numerous tenants and the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia testified in favor of awarding the buildings historic protections.

After the ruling, Preservation Alliance executive director Paul Steinke fielded questions from a small scrum of reporters in the hallway outside the meeting room. He described the issue as still very much alive. He also said that merchants on the block were being shown renderings of the Toll Brothers project, who report that it would apparently be 30 stories instead of the originally reported 16 stories. The façade on Sansom Street in these renderings would have two storefronts and a central lobby entrance to the condo tower. No preservation of any aspects of the existing storefronts are included, Steinke says.

“We will not be providing any additional comment at this time,” a Toll Brothers representative told PlanPhilly in response to an email about Steinke’s claims regarding the renderings of a substantially larger condo tower.

“What was told to the group was that the architect took cues from other buildings on Sansom Street to come up with the preliminary design for the facades,” said Steinke. “That goes to what the spokesperson for the developer has been saying about respecting the heritage. Well that means it’ll be Disney World, people.”

Steinke’s testimony centered on Philadelphia’s image as a historic city and Jewelers Row’s prominent place in that idea—and contrasted it with the false historicity of Disney World as a model of what the business district could become. He expressed a belief that the Toll Brothers project would be the beginning of the end for the commercial corridor, which includes very few other protected buildings.

Steinke also spoke of the previous case of 4046 Chestnut Street, where the Preservation Alliance fought for a stay of demolition. That building is still standing as a result, even though a demolition permit had already been issued.

“So it [the permit] is not necessarily the last word,” said Steinke. “It’s an option to consider down the road if they get closer to actually doing the demolition. Right now, the buildings are standing and they are occupied with rent and tax paying tenants. So demolition isn’t going to begin anytime soon.”

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