Update: L&I Board of Review rejects Dilworth House project

Following a second look ordered by the Commonwealth Court, the Board of Licenses & Inspections Review has once again ruled that a proposed demolition of part of the Dilworth House on Washington Square in order to build a 16-story condo tower designed by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates would affect a significant portion of the building and should not occur.
In an opinion issued Jan. 12, the board again sided with Concerned Citizens Opposing the Dilworth Development Project and the Society Hill Civic Association, who have challenged the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s approval of the project.

The L&I ruling

“We’re extremely grateful that the board conducted such a thorough analysis. The board covered a tremendous amount of issues, sifted through all the facts, and came to a very well-reasoned decision,” said Paul Boni, the attorney representing the civic association.

Boni said that in the first part of its opinion, the board emphasized the definition of demolition in the Philadelphia Code. “The applicant argued that removal of the rear façade and stairwell façade was inconsequential, and that clearly is not the case,” Boni said the board found. “When you take away half the building, that’s demolition under the ordinance. To do that requires that it be in the public interest or a case of hardship, neither of which exists here.”

The board’s second point, Boni said, was that the proposed new construction is “completely inappropriate for this property. The tower would significantly dwarf the remaining portion of the house, rendering it a subservient structure. It would impair the integrity of the historic property, and that’s improper.”

The building at 223-225 South 6th St. was built for Mayor Richardson Dilworth and his wife Anne in 1957. The Colonial Revival house was designed by G. Edwin Brumbaugh and is part of the Society Hill Historic Preservation District.

The current owners are John and Mary Turchi, who received the approval of the Historical Commission in November 2007 to remove a section of the rear wall, the two-story stair hall and the rear L-shaped portions of the house to clear construction for the 219-foot tower.

But the L&I review board overturned the commission following a “de novo review” – a presentation of both sides to the board as if no prior hearing had been held. The Turchis then appealed to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in a test of the legal power of the review board to overturn the commission.

In May 2010, Common Pleas Court Judge Idee C. Fox upheld the L&I review board decision, writing that “the board is clearly empowered to take evidence and to overrule and reverse decisions by the commission.”

The decision was then appealed by the Turchis to Commonwealth Court. Last April, Commonwealth Court explained that the L&I review board should have used a more deferential standard when reviewing the Historical Commission’s decision — and it sent the case back to the board for reconsideration.

“I think it’s clear that deference is owed to the Historical Commission,” Boni said. “But I think this opinion stands for the proposition that deference does not mean a rubber stamp. I think the board is saying that the Historical Commission was significantly out of bounds in its original approval.”

The attorney for the Turchis did not return a request for comment.

Boni said that for the Turchis to appeal the board’s decision, they would probably go up the ladder again: to the Court of Common Pleas, then Commonwealth Court and the state Supreme Court. He noted that there are also zoning approvals being challenged by the civic association and other opponents to the project. Oral arguments on the zoning issues will be held Feb. 14 in Commonwealth Court.

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