On Wednesday afternoon the Zoning Board of Adjustment quickly, and unanimously, ruled to deny an appeal that sought to stymie Toll Brothers’ proposed development on Jewelers’ Row.
The proposed condo tower requires significant demolition along the historic corridor. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia joined with local residents and merchants to argue that the developer, and the city, hadn’t followed the proper permitting procedures.
They argued that the developers’ failed to post notice properly during their bid to consolidate the properties in question. (Currently the Toll Brothers have zoning permits for the constriction, but not the demolition permits.)
The Preservation Alliance’s lawyer, Hal Schirmer, also contested that the documentation Toll Brothers provided, essentially the first page of an agreement of sale, was not sufficient to prove that they were allowed to pursue those permits. He argued that full signatures weren’t visible on the page—just initials—and that there were discrepancies in the paperwork, so the documentation was insufficient and the permit should not have been approved.
But L&I and the city argued that this is the normal procedure, an argument the Toll Brothers’ lawyer, Carl Primavera, took up as well.
“They want L&I to be determining ownership, but L&I just looks at the documents and accepts them at face value,” said Primavera. “If they didn’t do that, they would do nothing but look at documents like that all the time. They have to look at the plans, look at the code, and do their job. They did their job. If an issue is raised in regards to ownership, it can be brought forward and L&I will examine and if necessary revoke the permit. But in this case all the information is true, correct, and complete and that’s why L&I issued the permits.”
Emotions ran high during the 90 minutes of testimony leading up to the denial of the appeal. After a rowdy opening hearing last week, the ZBA attempted to forestall further clashes between the merchants and residents of the row and the lawyers representing the developer. At the beginning of the hearing, acting ZBA chair Carol Tinari said that anyone who disrespected other attendees or the board would be escorted from the room.
“This is a zoning hearing, not a presidential debate,” chided Tinari. “Here we expect civility."
But it wasn’t long before barbs were being traded again.
After Frank Schaffer of FGS Gems read a short statement, Primavera began questioning him aggressively. He tried to argue that Schaffer acted in tandem with other residents and the Preservation Alliance, asking him if he’d read the zoning code and whether he had been coached.
“I have to object to this, I don’t think it has any relevance,” said Schaffer, who was told by the ZBA that he couldn’t object. “I’m representing myself, yes I can object.”
Primavera backed down when the board noted that Schafer was making an opening statement, not testimony. But tensions flared again when Jimmy Lowe, a resident of Jewelers’ Row, stood up to describe how he’d learned about the development from the news, not posted permits, despite living in one of the buildings that would have to be demolished.
“He says there were no permits, which is hearsay…my suspicion is he was basically making it up as he goes,” scoffed Primavera, as Lowe told his tale.
During Lowe’s testimony, he periodically spoke to Primavera instead of the ZBA.
“So you are upset you weren’t told earlier in the process, is that what you are telling the board—please address the board as a courtesy,” Primavera told Lowe, as the resident turned to respond to him.
“I thought you were asking me a question,” said Lowe.
“You are unfamiliar with our culture and our legal process,” said Primavera, which prompted gasps from the other Jewelers’ Row merchants in attendance. “That’s so racist,” a voice cried from the audience. (Lowe is Asian American and speaks with a slight accent.)
“He’s standing in my face in a menacing way,” said Primavera amid the general uproar. “I’m saying please address your testimony to the court.”
“Stop, stop, don’t speak to the lawyer or anybody else, address the board,” said Anthony Gallagher, a Kenney appointee to the ZBA and business agent of Steamfitters Local 420. “We’re not getting into this. This is not good. We are going to keep this about zoning, we’re not going to get into the emotional. It’s getting to that point again, so let’s calm it down.”
Following this heated exchange, merchant Maryanne Ritter called former ZBA member Greg Pastore, who testified last week as well, to speak as a witness. He immediately began arguing the technicalities of why he believed the permitting, or lack thereof, to be invalid.
“I don’t want to hear Mr. Pastore’s open mic recitation,” said Primavera. “What I’ve just heard is poppycock. I don’t think you’re an expert.” (A statement which inspired Pastore to snort audibly. Pastore helped craft the new zoning code as a member of the Zoning Code Commission, served on the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and chaired Bella Vista’s neighborhood zoning committee.)
At the end of the hearing, after all the drama and legalities, the ZBA huddled and made their decision in just a couple minutes.
“In light of today’s outcome, we’ll consider our options and weigh the merits of the ZBA’s decision,” said the Preservation Alliance’s advocacy director Patrick Grossi* in an email message to PlanPhilly. “Moving forward, though, our primary focus is the October 21 meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation, where we’ll be testifying on behalf of our nominations of 704 and 706-08 Sansom St.”
*Disclosure: Patrick Grossi has a seat on PlanPhilly’s community advisory board.