Toll Brothers has released new renderings of the controversial condo tower it plans to build in the middle of historic Jewelers’ Row.
At a meeting of the Washington Square Civic Association held on Tuesday evening, the Horsham-based development company presented a glassier, shorter vision for the luxury high-rise it first introduced almost exactly a year ago.
That 29-story, glass and brick tower received a chilly reception, panned by neighbors, preservations and Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron as an “awkward vertical sandwich” that will “disrupt the street’s ecosystem, with its distinctive mix of artisan workshops, wholesalers, and jewelry stores.”
Now the developer has come back with a new plan for a 24-story tower sheathed fully in glass. Instead of the 115 units first proposed, the building will include 85 units and more room for shops, with the project’s retail space increasing from 2,600 to 4,500 square feet.
“We wanted to reduce the heaviness of it and have the tower disappear into the sky,” says David Von Spreckelsen, the President of Toll Brothers’ City Living Division. “Making it all glass was the most practical way of doing that.”
The older proposal depended on a complicated scheme to purchase development rights from surrounding properties. Without buying the properties themselves, Toll Brothers tried to argue there was a “unity of use” between the lots they owned and those where they had acquired development rights. The legalities of the concept were murky, however, and the company put the project on ice for much of the rest of 2017. Then in late December, Toll Brothers obtained a permit they needed to move forward with the project.
The new plan allows the developer to use the air rights above the older low-rise building next door at 712-714 Sansom Street. That building will remain intact, Von Spreckelsen says.
The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia has asked if the company would consider preserving the facades of the five buildings that are slated for demolition. A similar facade preservation effort was executed during the construction of the neighboring St. James residential tower on its Walnut Street-facing side.
But Von Spreckelsen echoed the longstanding company line on that idea, noting that the lack of architectural uniformity on Jewelers Row made the proposal impractical.
“Aesthetically, as well as practically, we don’t think it would work,” says Von Spreckelsen. “We wanted the building to read as one and found that very difficult to do with the existing facades. Those five buildings don’t line up, their floor heights are different, and the window heights didn’t line up.”
Von Spreckelsen says this may not be the final vision of the tower: there could be a further addition at its tallest point.
“We are still working to refine the crown at the top of the building to pay homage to Jewelers’ Row,” says Von Spreckelsen. “Some type of jewel at the top of the building.”
There is still opposition to the project from tenants of the row and historic preservationists, although many of the building owners on the block support Toll Brothers.
The Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia is challenging the company’s demolition permits. The Court of Common Pleas will hear the case in late February.
“Right now that’s our last, our only, major push to prevent the project from happening,” says Patrick Grossi, advocacy director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.
Grossi says that no matter what happens, the controversy has galvanized preservation activism and highlighted that over 95 percent of the city’s buildings do not have historic protections.
“People recognize Jewelers’ Row, it’s part of the cities fabric,” says Grossi. “Whether the project happens or not, I think it really illuminated the lack of historic protections across the city and opened up a lot of people’s eyes to just how vulnerable most historic properties are.”
After Tuesday presentation in Washington Square West, Toll Brothers will have to present the plan to the Civic Design Review board.