Support for preservation-minded solutions at Jewelers’ Row

It’s hard to imagine there is an RCO in Philadelphia with more architects among its membership than the Washington Square West Civic Association. At Tuesday night’s meeting of the community group’s zoning committee, which features a few architects itself, numerous built-environment focused professionals supported the Preservation Alliance’s call for historic protections of Jewelers’ Row—as did every almost everyone who spoke.

The meeting covered the new possible nightclub use of the old Venture Inn on Camac Street—which the zoning committee and the audience seemed uniformly opposed to—and Jannie Blackwell’s parking bill. But Patrick Grossi, advocacy director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Pennsylvania, provided the centerpiece of the meeting with a case for the designation of key segments of Jewelers’ Row as buildings of historic significance.

The Preservation Alliance wants to protect 704 and 706-708 (which are basically housed in one structure) on Sansom Street, and has prepared nominations to list the properties in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. If they succeed the parcels would be protected from imminent demolition. This would could also protect the other buildings that stand in the way of Toll Brothers’ proposed 16 story condo development, as it would be more difficult to proceed with the project as Toll has described it should sections of the row be spared.

“Admittedly this is somewhat strategic as it [the buildings in question] are right in the middle,” said Grossi. Later in the presentation, he described Jewelers Row as “a classic example of the sum being greater than its parts.”

704 Sansom was built in 1877 after the parcel was purchased by Henry C. Lea (whose name now adorns a public school in West Philadelphia). Today it is four stories, with Toll Brothers-opponent Maryanne S. Ritter’s Jewelers’ on the first floor. 706-708 was the first commercial buildings on the block, which soon became a haven of the printing industry, which clustered around Washington Square. (Every copy of Grey’s Anatomy through the early 1920s was produced on what is now Jewelers’ Row.) All of the nominated buildings were designed by Collins & Autenrieth, the architects behind the Lit Brothers building.

After Grossi presented his case Hy Goldberg of the Jewelers’ Row Association offered a view that, while not quite opposing Grossi’s contentions, certainly complicated them.

“I represent most of Jewelers’ Row and overwhelmingly the association are in favor of [the Toll Brothers] going forward,” said Goldberg, “provided they maintain the integrity of historic preservation appearance. But the Toll Brothers do not have the best reputation for living up to what they say they will do.”

Despite being the closest thing to a pro-Toll Brothers voice in the room, Goldberg repeatedly expressed concern about the project. At one point he described a month-ago meeting with the developers and Councilman Mark Squilla where the politician asked for the company to provide drawings of their plans.

“There are still are no drawings, so we don’t know what they will do,” said Goldberg. But he emphasized that the Jewelers’ Row Association supported the project as long as the company provided a facadectomy to preserve the frontage and as much of the existing buildings as possible.

Tuesday’s gathering did not feature the animation, or crowds, of the zoning committee’s previous meeting on the Jewelers’ Row question. This time there were only about 25 people and passions were not running so high, and there was broad support for more preservation-minded approaches to the properties.

Members of the zoning committee asked if perhaps the Society Hill Historic District could be expanded to encompass Jewelers’ Row (Grossi didn’t think so). Concerns were expressed that the buildings would no longer be able to evolve if they were historically protected (Grossi countered that the point would be moot if the buildings were demolished altogether). A member of the audience asked what the Preservation Alliance’s perspective on a any sort of tower at Jewelers Row, intact or otherwise, would be (Grossi emphasized that the group does not oppose development or high rises and suggested nearby surface parking lots as an alternative location).

“Our hope is to preserve the buildings as they exist,” said Grossi. “It’s entirely possible that Toll could remain interested in the project [after a historic designation]. There’s a couple angles they could take. One is closer to what Hy suggests, where they make a commitment to preserve the historic character of the storefronts and the primary facades on Sansom Street with a more aggressive setback for their tower while still conforming to CMX 5 zoning.”

All the attendees who spoke were in favor of historic protections for Jewelers’ Row. One resident of the block listed fun historical facts she had gleaned by reading the nomination (like the Grey’s Anatomy tidbit).  Others focused on the larger threat they perceived from the proposed project.

“I just would like to speak strongly in favor of voting to support the historical designation,” said attendee Diane Chambress. “The reason we all want to live in Center City is because of its charm and human scale. If we destroy the reason we are all here, why be here?”

The zoning committee did not make a decision at Tuesday night’s meeting about supporting the Preservation Alliance’s designation campaign. Instead they will make a recommendation to the full Washington Square West board at the next board of directors’ meeting, which will take place on October 18th. (The chair of the zoning board and the president of the RCO, Jonathan Broh, will recuse himself from any issues related to the project because his architecture firm works with the Toll Brothers.)

Several board members seemed sympathetic to the Preservation Alliance’s arguments, especially because Grossi’s aims didn’t seem in total opposition to those of the Jewelers’ Row Associations. The zoning committee’s J. Nathan Bazzel seemed particularly moved by the fact that the properties are already part of the East Center City Commercial District listed in the National Register of Historic Places, although that provides no protection from demolition unless government funds are involved in the project.

“That alone should give us pause and consider support,” said Bazzel. “The Jewelers’ Row Association hopes the developer will uphold the historical character of the block, but have concerns with the current [project] over whether that can happen. We are all close to wanting the same outcome. It seems common sense to me that we would support this application.”

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