Toll Brothers condo project for New Market set for ZBA appeal on height, but much of the testimony is expected to concern parking

The Wednesday Zoning Board appeal related to Toll Brother’s proposed condominium project at 410 S. Front St. stems from Toll’s plan to build 33 feet higher and two stories taller (counting access to the roof deck) than allowed by code.  But much of the testimony is likely to be about parking.

Some neighbors of the proposed 69-unit condo building who live on Lombard and Pine streets, say an easement attached to their homes that provided parking in the torn-down parking garage of the defunct Rusty Scupper restaurant means they are entitled to parking spaces within the proposed condo’s 110-space underground garage, since it will be on the same site.

Toll officials say the easement applied specifically to the Rusty Scupper and that garage only. Since that garage was torn down more than 10 years ago, the easement is no longer valid, they say.

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. The cost: $57,000, which Toll Brothers City Living Vice President Brian Emmons said is roughly half the market rate, plus a monthly maintenance fee of $40 to $50.

Nine residents accepted this proposal.

The rest “don’t like our price,” Emmons said.

Wednesday’s scheduled hearing would be the issue’s third trip before the ZBA.

The first time around, Toll asked for a continuance.

At the most recent appearance, the ZBA board pushed the hearing to the end of the agenda, after seeing the number of people there for the issue and the number of attorneys, said SHCA Zoning and Historic Preservation Committee Chair Lorna Katz Lawson.

The Pine Street neighbors and Lombard Street neighbors each were represented by attorneys, and two individual neighbors also had attorneys. “When we all got up to come to the front of the dais, the board saw how many people and lawyers were there, and said we were going to have to wait,” Katz Lawson said.

Toll made its case, which took about an hour, she said. Then the board continued the hearing until Wednesday to hear the rest of the testimony.

Attorneys for the Pine Street and Lombard Street neighbors – Shawn Ward and Daniel Markind, respectively – did not return calls requesting comment. Riverview Condominium Association President Jeff Simpson, one of the Lombard Street neighbors, was reached Sunday, but could not talk at that time. Simpson said he would get back to PlanPhilly Monday. When we hear from him, we will update this story, provided we have electricity.

John Wong, a Lombard Street resident who attended the last session with his own attorney, said for him, parking is not the issue.

“My concerns have been, and still are, having to do with quality of life issues with respect to their development,” Wong said.  Wong said he wants more time to understand how design changes, such as the shifting of the garage door location, will impact him. He has other quality of life concerns as well, he said, but did not have the list in front of him.
Wong said the developer has not communicated well with him and other neighbors through the process, and he wants more certainty about what is going to happen. This assertion was made at a public meeting as well, and Toll vehemently denied that they did not communicate with neighbors.

“In order to address these issues, me and my attorney – had requested a continuance zoning board hearing – so we could have more time for direct discussion with developer on these particular issues,” Wong said.

The ZBA did not grant this continuance, he said, and is slated to move ahead with the hearing this week. But Wong said his attorney has reached out to Toll, and he is hopeful the one-on-one talk will happen. Wong believes time is all that is needed to sort everything out.

“I don’t necessarily feel, at least on my part, that there are any issues that would not be resolvable in one way or another,” he said.  “It has come down to the final list of nuts and bolts, and it is not something that would or should drag on indefinitely.”

The Society Hill Civic Association has voted to support the requested zoning changes and the project. SHCA has reached an agreement with Toll that freezes the current proposed height and sets parameters about when construction can take place and maintenance of the property once the condos are built, said Lawson. She believes it addresses all neighbors’ concerns, except for the ones related to the parking spaces. SHCA did not address the easement issue in the agreement, she said, because “we do not believe the (parking agreement) is enforceable.”

The Front Street site, the former home of the New Market development, has been an empty pit for a long time. This is the same site for which a much-taller – and much more controversial – development, Stamper Square, had been proposed.

Stamper Square had received a change in zoning classification that allowed it to build a 15-story project with 77 condos, a 150-unit hotel and underground parking for 350 cars. But that change has a sunset provision, which is why Toll needs a variance.

The developer who had hoped to build Stamper Square had pledged to give free parking spaces to residents with the easements in the Rusty Scupper garage.

“Other developers were able to make promises in exchange for support,” said Emmons.

But Emmons said Toll can’t do that and make the finances work on this project, which is much smaller. Stamper Square was “three to four times” the size of the Toll project, he said. “If we could do it, we would” to get the project moving.

Both Katz Lawson and Emmons expressed frustration that the project was being delayed over a parking issue. In Katz Lawson’s opinion, the parking issue “has no standing in ZBA” because the easement was an agreement between individuals unrelated to zoning.

The market value of any home that comes with a parking space would increase considerably, Katz Lawson said. She said at least two homes owned by Pine Street neighbors are on the market.

Katz Lawson said the ZBA could discount parking space related testimony on those grounds.

She predicts an appeal, no matter what the ZBA decides.

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