Appellants in the ongoing case of the historic Italianate mansion at the corner of 40th & Pine called their last witness at the Board of L&I Review Tuesday afternoon. The applicants will begin presenting their side in a full-day hearing tentatively scheduled for January 17th.
The case hinges on a Historical Commission decision last May to allow the University of Pennsylvania, which owns the building, to demolish it. The appellants, which include the Woodland Terrace Homeowners Association, represented by attorney Paul Boni, believe that the Historical Commission erred in granting Penn a financial hardship and permission to demolish.The applicants, naturally, do not.
On Tuesday, Boni called George Hoez, a Philadelphia-based appraiser, to give expert testimony on the feasibility of renovating the existing building rather than demolishing it. Matt McClure, an attorney for Penn, agreed that Hoez was an expert generally—that he “knows more than the average person” about real estate appraisal—but objected to his opinion being considered expert when it comes to the subject property.
Hoez did not perform an independent inspection of the house at 40th and Pine, but reviewed a proposal that was a response to a 2010 Solicitation of Interest from Penn when it was seeking developers for the site. (McClure also disagreed with the characterization of the property as a mansion; he lodged no fewer than 15 objections during Tuesday’s two-hour hearing, along with more informal protests to the tone and volume of Boni’s and Hoez’ voices.)
Boni’s case has revolved around whether Penn adequately marketed the property for sale or considered proposals for redeveloping the site without demolishing the historic building. Developer Jonathan Weiss, of Equinox Management & Construction, has proposed a 5-story apartment complex for students on the site. But Boni has argued that documentation shows Penn declined to pursue non-demolition proposals from other developers because the financial return was simply not as high was the University would like. Weiss made an earlier proposal to build a 7-story apartment complex on the site and restore the historic building, but neighbors protested over the height.
For the duration of the case, which has been going on for about half a year, the applicants’ attorneys have objected to Boni’s methods in presenting his appeal. Matt McClure of Ballard Spahr and Andrew Ross of the City’s Law Department have tried to persuade the Board that it must take a very limited view of the case—to consider only evidence presented during the Historical Commission proceedings, and to decide whether that body made the right decision or an inappropriate one.
On Tuesday, Ross protested what he called Boni’s “modus operandi,” which he described as presenting new evidence, and only then having the Board decide whether or not the evidence could be considered. Boni asked the opposing attorneys to hold their objections, to allow him to present his case, and to present theirs when it is their turn. But Ross said Boni wasn’t presenting his case fairly.
“I’m really tired of just waiting,” Ross said, “so you can ignore all the rules and say whatever you want.”
In 2003, Penn paid around $1.7 million for the building, which was designed by Samuel Sloan and constructed in the 1850s. Penn and Equinox have said that any proposal for the site which does not net a return on investment of at least 11 percent is not feasible. The case is also being argued at the Zoning Board of Adjustment; the Planning Commission has recommended approval of a handful of variances for the building proposed by Equinox, without commenting on the issue of the demolition.
Note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly that Spruce Hill Community Association had joined the appeal of the Historical Commission's decision. Woodland Terrace Homeowners Association has opposed the demolition of the mansion; Spruce Hill does not. PlanPhilly regrets the error.