Society Hill hotel tower that sparked backlash moves ahead

A rendering of the proposed Third and Walnut St. hotel approved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. (Ambit architecture)

A rendering of the proposed Third and Walnut St. hotel approved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. (Ambit architecture)

Developers snagged a zoning permit for a scaled-down hotel tower in Society Hill –– less than a year after a similar proposal from the same developer sparked outcry and the creation of new height limits for parts of the historic neighborhood.

The final iteration of the hotel project would replace a large single-family dwelling from the 1990s near 3rd and Walnut streets with an eight-story, 100-foot tower featuring 90 hotel rooms for an unnamed hospitality operator and ground floor retail.

Rich Villa, partner at Ambit Architecture acting on behalf of owner Marie F. Cerone, said the final project, which was approved by the city’s Historic Commission last year, would be built in excess of the new 65 foot height limit as the developer had applied for zoning permits prior to the passage of the overlay.

“We made the changes the Historical Commission asked for and I like it,” he said.

An earlier proposal for a 15-story, 184-foot tower was opposed by the local Society Hill Civic Association on the grounds that its scale was out of step with the historic neighborhood. Last fall, developers offered to winnow down the proposal down to seven stories, although local Councilman Mark Squilla had already sought and won passage of the new zoning overlay limiting development scale in the immediate area.

The overlay itself sparked controversy, with some groups blasting it as an attempt to impose more exclusionary zoning in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Mayor Jim Kenney went so far as to issue his first veto ever for the legislation, but that action was reversed by a supermajority of council.

The final plan is set back further from the street line and includes some aesthetic changes –– like smaller windows, a red brick exterior and the removal of an elevator tower and other changes to conform more to surrounding buildings.

An effort last fall from some on the Historic Commission to vote down the smaller version of the project failed. That meeting saw a similar back and forth during public comment and over height and that the final development might be grandfathered in despite the passage of height limits.

At the time, Mary Purcell, vice president of the Society Hill Civic Association, said even the smaller project would dwarf the nearby Merchants’ Exchange building.

“We thank the applicant for the changes that have been made but it remains in conflict with our neighborhood plan and city ordinances in terms of height massing and design,” she said. “The proposed building would tower over the Merchants Exchange.”

Historic preservationist Oscar Beisart supported the project. Beisart said lower heights associated with part of the neighborhood were the result of the 1960s Society Hill Project. That urban renewal effort yielded the replacement of larger extant Victorian-era buildings with faux colonial rowhouses and the construction of the iconic Society Hill Towers, built by famed architect I.M. Pei.

“I could get on board with height restriction if it was actually protecting historic fabric but that’s not what this is,” he said. “The idea that the I.M. Pei towers are to be the only tall buildings…is not historic.”

Last Thursday, the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections issued an initial zoning permit for the smaller tower. Although the project would be built by right, there is a 30-day window for the appeal of permit issuance.

Villa dismissed ongoing criticism of the project.

“My office is in Society Hill, so I see people who are angry with me all the time,” he said.

The Society Hill Civic Association declined a request for comment on Tuesday.

Taylor Allen contributed to this story.

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