Society Hill residents opposing a zoning variance for condo development say it’s about shadows and privacy, not parking

The issues leading some Lombard Street and Pine Street neighbors to object to the zoning relief Toll Brothers needs to build a Society Hill condo project have little or nothing to do with parking spaces, they and their attorneys testified before the Zoning Board of Adjustment Wednesday.

But a special parking arrangement might be part of an agreement that would help convince at least some neighbors to withdraw their objections.

The main issue for the Lombard Street neighbors – residents of Riverview Condominiums –  is Toll’s proposed treatment of a wall between the proposed condos and Riverview, said attorney Daniel Markind.

The main issue for the Pine Street properties relates to the shadows the buildings will cast into the neighbor’s back yards during most months of the year, said Pine Street attorney Shawn Ward.

While the ZBA heard more than an hour of testimony, they made no decision on Toll’s requests to build higher and at a different setback than allowed by right.

Wednesday’s testimony was a continuation from an earlier hearing in which Toll made its case, but time was up before the other groups could. ZBA board members who were present last time were not present this time, and vice versa.

Toll Attorney Carl Primavera asked that the transcript of both hearings be given to all so everyone could vote on Toll’s request for relief.  With no objections from the Lombard  or Pine Street attorneys, nor attorney Harper Dimmerman, who represents neighbor John Wong, the board agreed. 

(Dimmerman said he has been in contact with Toll representatives about his client’s concern – that the noise from the underground garage’s door and parking system might disturb the Wong family. Dimmerman said after learning about the system, Wong believes it won’t cause a problem, and so long as Toll agrees not to change to another system, Wong will likely have no further objection.)

The parties have 30 days to provide the ZBA board with any new documents, including any potential agreements between the neighbor’s and Toll.

Both Ward and Pine Street Resident Murat Aslansan, who is leading the Pine Street group, said such an agreement is near.  Toll Vice President Brian Emmons agreed with that assessment.

During testimony, Ward and Aslansan said the massing of the Toll proposal meant shadows would cover the back yards of the Pine Street neighbors for most of the year. Primavera and the Toll team disagreed with that assessment, saying the yards would be in full shadow during the winter months and “no one will be sunbathing” then, anyway.

Through questioning, Primavera pointed out that the Pine Street neighbors had not objected to other, taller proposals for the property, including a much taller hotel/condo complex called Stamper Square.  Primavera asserted the reason for no objection then was that the developer had promised free parking to  neighbors who held a parking easement guaranteeing them spots in the now-gone garage of the now-defunct Rusty Scupper restaurant.

Aslansan said the reason the residents did not object to other proposals is unrelated to parking. The massing of those projects was different,  he said, with more of the building toward Front Street, so the light and air issues were not an issue.

The Lombard Street Neighbors’ main issue is the wall that is the remnant of the Rusty Scupper, Markind said.

Toll plans to leave the wall in place, build a second wall, and fill the space between them. That, Emmons said during testimony would make the wall structurally sound. Then Toll will top it with another structure that can be embedded in the top of the wall. Wood and iron options have been rejected by the neighbors, he said.  The latest Toll offer was a vinyl structure that would require no maintenance.

Markind said that the wall that was removed when Will Smith had plans to build a hotel on the site was a cement block structure covered in stucco, and only another solid structure will do.

“It has to be a permanent structure of brick or concrete,” Markind said before the hearing. “It has to be non-permeable, and can’t be see-through.”

Through Markind’s questions, Lombard Street neighbor Robert Hughner – the last original owner in Riverview Condominiums – said that previous developers with proposals for the property had agreed to rebuild the wall like it was.

Primavera objected that previous developer agreements had nothing to do with Toll.  ZBA members seemed to feel the same way.  “I don’t want to put a lot on the record about the past,” said Samuel Staten Jr. “There’s a new owner.”

Staten asked how the wall issue was relevant to the zoning matter at hand. Markind said the developer was asking for something “extra-legal” – to build a project that wouldn’t be allowed strictly by base zoning. He said his clients understood that Toll was not bound by previous agreements, but they wanted some thing in return for Toll’s ability to build its project as planned.

“I don’t want this to look like Let’s Make A Deal,” Staten quipped.

Prior to the hearing, Markind explained it this way: Because the Lombard Street neighbors “great desire here is to welcome Toll to the neighborhood” and see the project built, they have accepted that the project will block their views, create a lane with ingress and egress past their back yards ( a condition Primavera described as an asset), and other things that will change conditions at the condos.

“All we really asked for is that they rebuild the wall, and their response is ‘it’s too expensive. It’s not in the budget.’”

Emmons testified that the only way to rebuild the wall was to dig into the neighbor’s yards.

Staten also questioned how the parking easement with the Rusty Scupper garage was relevant. Reading from a copy of the easement, he said it only applied to that garage, which no longer exists.

Markind asserted that the easement is not tied to that particular garage, but any garage on the property. But he said that parking was not  his clients’ main issue, anyway, and left the topic.

Prior to the hearing, Markind called the parking issue an ancillary issue that would not be the focus of testimony. When asked how the parking issue would be dealt with outside the hearing, he said “I can’t answer that right now.”

Emmons testified that the only way to rebuild the wall was to dig into the neighbor’s yards.

After the session, Emmons said the talks with neighbors, the most recent of which had happened with Pine Street Neighbors earlier that day, include discussions “about all the issues” from the hearing.  Agreement is close with Pine Street Neighbors, but not with Lombard Street neighbors, he said.

Emmons would not provide details about what Toll is considering, but said no offer will involve changing the height or massing of the building or providing free parking.

In previous interviews, both Emmons and representatives of the Society Hill Civic Association, which has endorsed the request for variance, have asserted that parking is really the biggest issue for the objecting neighbor groups.

The Toll development will have more parking spaces than residents, and Toll has offered to sell the spaces, condo-style, to the owners of the 21 residences who had the Rusty Scupper easement. The cost: $57,000, which Emmons said is roughly half the market rate, plus a monthly maintenance fee of $40 to $50.

Nine residents accepted this proposal, Emmons said earlier.  He would not say Wednesday whether the prices offered earlier might drop in order to reach an agreement with more residents.

Emmons also said Wednesday that no offer would involve replacing the piece of wall between the Lombard Street neighbors and the condominiums – the only thing up for discussion is the way the additional top piece will be handled, he said. The “aesthetics of the building” are also part of the talks, he said.

After the session, Aslansan said Emmons “seems like a guy with a lot of integrity” and he anticipates an agreement will be reached. If that happens, the objections would be dropped, he said. But it would be “difficult” to solve the shadows issue without changes to the massing, he said.

On the South end of Pine, “Parking is not an issue,” he said. “Our issue is the enjoyment of our houses.”

But Ward said that his clients could reach an agreement with Toll without a change in massing, if other things were offered that made up for the increased shadows, and a parking agreement might be part of that.

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