Why is Toll Bros. designing a “background” building for an iconic Philly neighborhood?

By Ashley Hahn

After a couple of false starts, Toll Bros. is advancing a scaled-back proposal for a condo building, replacing five buildings at the edge of Jewelers’ Row. Toll unveiled its latest iteration of the contentious project at a Washington Square West Civic Association’s zoning committee Tuesday evening. As Jake Blumgart reported, the Horsham-based developer is now planning to build a 24-story, 307-foot tall building to replace 702, 704, 706, and 708-710 Sansom Street. The neighborhood’s review was strictly design-focused, to inform the project’s Civic Design Review meeting on February 6.

The course of this project has been fraught, drawing a fight from preservationists and some neighbors, permit challenges, and delay. But Toll is persistent, and there are, realistically very few things neighbors or the city can control about this project at this point. It is largely proceeding by right, and Civic Design Review is a nonbinding process that, at best, could persuade the developers into improving the project’s design.

For those who object to Toll’s incursion into the delicate ecosystem of Philadelphia’s historic jewelry district, any tall building feels like it is bigfooting onto such a human-scale setting. But if Toll’s project is already a tough pill to swallow, it’s made more difficult by a design that is not ambitious enough. In exchange for the historic integrity of Jewelers’ Row, we should expect truly interesting architecture in its place. Instead, the new design aims to disappear into the sky and blend into the streetscape.

Toll’s first proposal was rightly critiqued as a building with an identity crisis – its south side a plain wall of glass facing Washington Square and its Sansom side a heavy nod to the street’s red brick buildings. This time, the designers applied a classic tall building formula that adapts the parts of a column, with a distinct base, shaft, and cap, each with a different character.

The most successful part of the design is the base, the first three stories facing Jewelers’ Row. Here the building is clad in brick and glass, in a good-faith attempt at contextual design that takes its cues from the scale of the historic streetscape and traditional materials. The base is broken up into four sections, evoking the rhythm of the small buildings it replaces and the existing density of the street. Brick piers separate each of the large window sections; one section to the east is for the lobby and the other three are for commercial use. The base rises three stories to match the cornice of 700 Sansom, a petite historically protected building, and it is capped with a pergola intended to soften the setback to the glass tower above. The top of that trellis structure meets the four-story roofline of the building to the west.

The glass shaft rising above the base is where the design starts to fall flat. It is boxy, likely to maximize floor space on what is a relatively small parcel for a building of this scale. What variation it has comes from a few setbacks as the building rises, like thin blocks of ice fused together.

“This is not just a box that’s extruded up,” Toll’s architect, Jim Davidson, a partner at New York-based SLCE Architects, told the crowd Tuesday. Toward Sansom Street, the building is a progression of four alternating setbacks, which is more generous than the south side gets. Facing Washington Square the building has fewer setbacks, giving this side a more monolithic presence. (The designers indicated they would be open to giving further definition to this side of the building.) Moving east, the side of the building facing out to 7th Street is flat, save a single loading bay, topped with two floors of outdoor space that reach toward the sidewalk. Here too will be on-call valet service for residents’ cars. (That is likely to frustrate anyone who gets snarled on this block, often bottlenecked with delivery trucks.)

Capping the building is a smaller glass box housing mechanical systems, sheathed in faceted glass panels that zigzag like a paper crown. The design team presented this concept as a nod to Art Deco building forms, but it reminded me of a slice of Pittsburgh’s 1980s-era PPG Place.

“This is very much treated as a background building. It doesn’t call attention to itself,” Davidson told the crowd. The glassy upper stories are intended to disappear into the sky.

“We felt that taking the one façade of glass all around would be the best thing for a background building as it impacts Washington Square,” Davidson told PlanPhilly.

But why should this be a background building? “Because it is a background building,” he said flatly. In no small part that’s a departure from first design’s combination of brick and glass, which garnered such a “uniformly negative response.” They aimed for subtle instead.

But it’s hard to be so tall and remain unobtrusive. Toll’s proposed building is no architectural wallflower, surrounded by similar buildings. It stands with very few other big and tall neighbors. It will be viewed in the round, but Toll’s architects do not do enough to take advantage of this unique opportunity to punctuate the skyline. There is no tension in this design, no odd angles or curves to create a more interesting form, just staid quietude. It’s got the personality of an office park.

It is challenging to design a building that successfully relates to its surroundings when it’s 75 percent bigger than its near-neighbors. Toll’s building is no exception. The design comes off like a tall teenager shyly trying to blend in, but she can’t help but stand out. If similar neighbors surrounded Toll’s building, and our eyes stayed down toward the street, it would be possible not to worry much about the bland presentation above. But why should the deep-pocketed developer of a luxury condo aim for a mute glass form that recedes? It’s going to stand out, so why not give us something worth seeing when we look up?

The last best hope for a stronger design is going to come from the court of public opinion and successfully persuasive Civic Design Review meetings that result in some serious modifications. Otherwise, this design is a cubic zirconia where we deserve a diamond.

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