Society Hill residents lose zoning fight against high-rise, may challenge plan in court

Philadelphia neighbors lose zoning appeal against 31-story apartment tower in Society Hill.

Development firm LCOR has proposed a 31-story apartment building, in the foreground, for Society Hill. Neighbors are opposed to the 272-unit high-rise. (BLT Architects rendering)

Development firm LCOR has proposed a 31-story apartment building, in the foreground, for Society Hill. Neighbors are opposed to the 272-unit high-rise. (BLT Architects rendering)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Society Hill residents came out in force Tuesday to oppose plans for a 31-story apartment tower at the edge of their neighborhood.

Dozens of opponents attended a Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing where their effort to block the project’s permit was voted down. They then packed the room during the city’s Civic Design Review consideration of the glassy tower proposed by development firm LCOR.

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Every resident of the upscale neighborhood who spoke before the committee denounced plans for the 272-apartment high-rise, which would neighbor I.M. Pei’s iconic Society Hill Towers.

“It interferes with neighbors right to light and their right to a view,” said architect James Timberlake, who lives in the Society Hill Towers. “When I look out of my windows on the 31st floor, that building is going to be a hand in my face.”

Timberlake and other opponents spoke of the hope of Philadelphia’s late master planner Ed Bacon to have the three historic towers anchor the east side of Philadelphia during the city’s urban renewal.

“This tower violates not only the principles of that planning effort, but changes dramatically the understanding and appreciation of that planning effort,” said Timberlake.

The Civic Design Review committee voted 3-2 to require BLT Architects to come before the board again, exercising the advisory board’s only power. (CDR member Cecil Baker, a prominent architect in the city, recused himself from the proceedings because he may be working on another tower proposal in Society Hill soon.)

One of the CDR committee members to vote against asking LCOR’s architects to return was Leo Addimando of the development firm Alterra Property Group.

Addimando berated the neighbors for their opposition, saying their concerns were not the kind of design considerations the committee considers.

“Somewhere in my civic textbook I must have missed the chapter on how Society Hill and the towers have sovereignty over Philadelphia and its zoning code,” said Addimando, referring to the fact that the project conforms with the area’s zoning map. “Or perhaps we’ve entered a parallel universe where property rights now carry an asterisk.”

Addimando has clashed with the Society Hill Civic Association before, when it fought his plans to build a midrise tower at the site of the Acme market in the neighborhood. The community group eventually pressured the developer to leave the supermarket in its current one-story form.

“I also have to say I’m quite disappointed in the eminent Mr. Timberlake’s ‘hand in the face’ comment, which strikes me as nothing more than ‘not in my backyard,’” said Addimando, who is also vice president of the Building Industry Association.

“A lot of the parcels [left in Society Hill] are small parcels and, therefore, when constructed and designed, they are going to be towers,” said Addimando.  “Those towers are going to block certain people’s views. That’s part of living in a city.”

The project designers stated that they’ve made small changes to the proposed tower to address some of the minor design critiques. They’ve installed more benches around the entrance on Dock Street, providing a bit more public space within the small footprint of the project. They also tried to align the windows in the base of the tower with those in the neighboring Sheraton Philadelphia Society Hill Hotel.

The Planning Commission staff spoke well of the project, and members said their only concerns lie with the base, which is sheathed in gray brick, while the tower glitters above. (No retail is planned for the site because it is too small, the architects say.)

Other opponents included representatives from the Society Hill Civic Association and the Society Hill Towers Owners Association. Concerns included traffic, aesthetics, and views.

Parking is a particular concern for residents. The plan calls for 74 spaces devoted to the apartment tower residents underground in the garage the Sheraton Hotel already uses.

One resident of the towers suggested that the new tower could act as a wind tunnel with the already-existing high-rises. “Strong winds will provide a danger to bicyclists and even light trucks,” said John Best in his testimony to the CDR committee.

Both neighborhood groups were accompanied by lawyers. Prominent real estate lawyer David Fineman, representing the Society Hill Towers residents, said that the case probably isn’t over. (Zoning and land use attorney Richard DeMarco represents the Society Hill Civic Association and Matthew McClure of Ballard Spahr is representing the developer.)

“I think the ZBA hearing was such that we decided there were numerous appellate issues that we can take before the Court of Common Pleas and maybe the Commonwealth Court,” said Fineman.

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