Toll Brothers gets support of Society Hill Civic board for its proposed condo building on the former NewMarket site

Toll Brothers’ proposed 69-unit, 68-foot tall condo development at 401 Front St. –  the former NewMarket site – got the support of the Society Hill Civic Association’s board Monday night.

The board voted in a closed session at Old Pine Church after more than an hour of presentation by Toll and questions by residents.  SHCA President Steven Weixler told PlanPhilly of the vote to support afterward. The vote means SHCA supports Toll’s request for several zoning variances related to height and number of stories. Weixler said the board approval is contingent on SHCA and Toll reaching at least a tentative Letter of Agreement before a Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing.

The 14 SHCA board members who attended all voted in favor of the proposal, said SHCA zoning and historic preservation committee chairwoman Lorna Katz Lawson on Thursday. Ten board members were absent from the meeting.

Toll Brothers has a Sept. 5 hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Toll also has the support of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, which voted in favor of the variance requests last week, and the historical commission, which gave conceptual support to the project in July.

The builder hopes to begin construction next spring, and finish by fall 2014.

In response to requests from residents and the city historical commission, Toll has made some changes to the outside of the building and grounds.

The lower third or so of the Front Street facade once was faced with limestone. In response to the historical commission, the level of the limestone has been substantially lowered to “more of a wainscoting,” said Toll Brothers City Living Vice President Brian Emmons at the Old Pine presentation. The face of the building is now predominately brick, and less “showy,” he said.

The community will be gated, but the gate is behind the wall of a small public plaza or pocket park. Changes have also been made to the park’s design. It now has a large center tree that Emmons said will be lit up at night and a large planter-like structure surrounded by wide ledges for seating.

Weixler and Lawson said while SHCA is pleased with the development overall, it is still not satisfied with all the building materials and the public park element, and these are issues that will be addressed in a Letter of Agreement. Weixler said the agreement would be made and signed before the Sept. 5 ZBA hearing.

Emmons noted during the presentation that all materials used on the building are natural – stone, brick and metal – and he said his company is “absolutely open” to continuing discussion. The design for the public park area has proven challenging, he said, in part because a few residences and businesses to the north and south of the project require access to their properties through the public space.

The Letter of Agreement will address other issues as well, Weixler said, including the hours when construction can take place and when trash can be picked up, the prohibition of live music in the open space and the responsibility of the future home owners association to keep the small public green space clean once Toll has moved on.

In response to questions from the audience, Emmons said the park area would be among the many areas around the property with security cameras that are monitored from the front desk. Resident Harry Schwartz said the area should be well lit for security’s sake, even though dimmer lighting might be more visually pleasing. “You need to balance aesthetics with security,” he said. Emmons agreed.

All residents at the meeting seemed largely pleased with the project, and glad to fill the hole that has been empty in their neighborhood for so long. From the beginning, residents have expressed happiness that this project is not nearly as tall as the failed, earlier residential/hotel development Stamper Square, which was 15 stories tall. Toll’s proposal is either four stories, or, counting the roof-top deck, five.

But that’s not to say all has been harmonious. Several residents of Riverview Condominiums told the developer they and their neighbors are unhappy that jackhammers and other equipment have been on site as early as 7 a.m., creating noise and shaking their homes.  One man claimed the company did not have clearance from utilities, and wondered out loud if they might hit a gas line.

Emmons said the utility companies had been contacted, and there are no lines in the area. He said the company was only doing exploratory work – removing concrete – and that doesn’t require a permit. Emmons said he would put together an email list to alert neighbors when such work will take place in the future, so they won’t be surprised by it. One neighbor, who asked that his name not be used, said this would be a satisfactory fix, if it happens.

Katz Lawson said this is another issues that will be addressed in the Letter of Agreement


Another group of neighbors, who live in 21 residences, mostly on Pine and Lombard streets, have a parking issue with Toll.

These homes were granted easements to one parking space a piece, at monthly market rate, in the former Rusty Scupper parking garage. None of these residents were at the meeting, but Katz Lawson said the group says they are entitled to a similar deal in any parking garage built on the site. The Toll Project includes an underground garage with 110 parking spaces.

The Rusty Scupper garage came down more than a decade ago. Toll Brothers has showed the easement to multiple attorneys, Emmons said, and all have concluded that the easement applied only to the Rusty Scupper garage. See the easement here.

The Toll development does have more parking spaces than residents, and Toll has offered to sell the spaces, condo-style, to the owners of the 21 residences, Emmons said. The cost: $50,000 – which he said is about half of the going market rate in the area – plus a monthly maintenance fee of $40 to $50. He did not know how many would accept this offer.

Katz Lawson said that having a parking space certainly adds considerable value to a home. But she and Weixler both said the parking issue doesn’t have anything to do with the development itself or the zoning issues, and so it is something for the impacted neighbors and their attorneys to handle independent of the SHCA.

The neighbors with the parking issue have also brought up other issues, including the shadows the new building would cast on their homes, Katz Lawson said. While shadow studies have shown this would only happen one season a year, that season is winter, when sunlight is most desired, she said.

Katz Lawson said the board discussed this issue in its Wednesday night session before the vote. But some on the board who were serving when the Stamper Square project came before them recalled that the neighbors hadn’t objected to the shadows from that building, which was much taller.

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

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