New proposal at historic 40th and Pine property won’t end litigation

As first reported by The Daily Pennsylvanian, developer Jonathan Weiss met with Spruce Hill Community Association this week to present a new proposal for 400 S. 40th Street, the historic property owned by the University of Pennsylvania which has been the subject of protracted litigation over the past several years.

The new proposal would preserve the historic mansion, the demolition permit for which was the cause of six months of hearings at the Board of Licenses and Inspections Review, as well as a pending case in the Court of Common Pleas.

The proposal now calls for a five-story apartment complex geared toward graduate students. An earlier proposal called for the demolition and replacement of the historic mansion, and an even earlier proposal would have preserved the building and added a 7-story apartment building.

“This plan preserves the historic structure, as well as reduces the density by 20 percent, so we think that we are attempting to compromise as much as possible,” said Jonathan Weiss.

Woodland Terrace Homeowners Association and a group of neighbors appealed both the Historical Commission’s approval of the demolition and the zoning board’s approval of a handful of variances for the proposed project. Both appeals are still being pursued.

Paul Boni, the attorney representing the appellants, said he hasn’t yet discussed the new proposal with his clients, but that the underlying legal issues haven’t changed.

“The appeals continue as long as the approvals are in place,” Boni said. “[The case] continues until it exhausts itself or gets to the Supreme Court or we win.”

Boni said that whether or not the appellants support the new proposal, the developer still has the demolition permit, which represents a right to demolish the building. He said that as an attorney, he wouldn’t assume that the developer won’t tear down the building just because they presented a plan that involves its preservation to a community group.

The litigation could conceivably end, he said, if the owners were to “affirmatively and legally” abandon the approvals. One way that could happen, Boni said, is if they “take [the approvals] to Broad and Market and pour gasoline on them and set them on fire in front of the media …”

The position of Penn and Jonathan Weiss has been that preserving and adapting the property is a hardship. They said they exhausted the reasonable development possibilities, and neighbors had had complaints about each. Neighbors may yet protest the new proposal, which includes no parking spaces.

Aaron Wunsch, a Penn professor who has been an outspoken advocate of preserving the mansion, said that the new proposal is an opportunity for Woodland Terrace Homeowners Association to step back and feel proud that they were able to improve the design of the development and help preserve the historic structure.

“There were aspects of the [new] design I didn’t love, and there have been aspects of this decade-long process that remain deeply regrettable, especially in the arena of legal precedent,” Wunsch told PlanPhilly in an email. “All this said, the scheme presented last night seems like an eminently reasonable compromise.  It may also be the best chance to keep the mansion standing.”


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