The Toll Brothers proposal for a 24-story condo tower in the midst of Jewelers’ Row received a mixed-review at the city’s Civic Design Review (CDR) board on Tuesday. The architects, developers, and urban designers who comprise the municipal body asked the developer to come back in March, forcing the company to return to the drawing table and slowing a project first presented to city officials one year ago.
Every member of the board who vocalized their opinion about Toll’s proposal expressed concerns on issues including traffic flow, a lack of green design, and the disconnect between the building’s brick-clad base, which fronts onto Jewelers’ Row, and the glassy tower that rises above it.
Both members of the board and numerous historic preservationists and neighborhood activists
pressed the Toll Brothers representatives about the plan to destroy five old buildings on the block and their refusal to consider preserving their facades. CDR chair Nancy Rogo Trainer reminded the Toll representatives that she had asked them to have an explanation the next time they presented to the board.
“This will seem as though I’m playing to the crowd—I’m not—but why can’t we save the facades,” said Trainer, who is an Associate Vice President of Planning and Design at Drexel University. “And remember that we are architects and designers when you do respond.”
“We’ve considered keeping these structures many times,” said Jim Davidson of the New York-based SLC Architects, who lead the design of the project. “The value of the retail space we feel will be enhanced by new structures.”
“So, it’s a question of choice, not necessity,” asked Trainer.
“Correct,” said Davidson.
The Toll Brothers’ project on the low-slung historic commercial block of Jewelers’ Row has been in the works since 2016, and it immediately provoked a massive preservationist backlash. But there are relatively few barriers to the developer’s ambitions: the five buildings targeted for demolition have no historic protections and the block is zoned CMX-5, one of the densest available zoning categories.
Because opponents have little chance of actually stopping the project, many preservationists have called instead for the preservation of the facades of the five buildings. This practice—called a facadectomy—is common and was executed on a row of townhomes that were otherwise demolished for the colossal St. James condo tower.
“Mayor Kenney went on public record in December of 2016, urging the developer to preserve these facades,” said Paul Steinke, head of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. “I don’t come to many CDR meetings, but how many times has the mayor made such a plea on the design of a major Philadelphia project? That should count for something. Preserving these facades would build and restore some of the goodwill that’s been lost over these 18 months.”
In their presentation, the Toll Brothers tried to emphasize how unobtrusive their building would be and compared it favorably to the enormous St. James tower, which stands out strongly from its surroundings.
A shadow study indicated that the Toll Brothers tower would not cast Washington Square Park into darkness and a slide showed that the building would be obstructed by trees in the spring and summer months. A number of slides (shown at the end of the article) were used to show that the Jewelers' Row condos would not be substantially taller than the other large buildings nearby (unlike, they noted again, the St. James).
But the attempts to calm dissent were unsuccessful and the persistent calls for a facadectomy weren’t the only criticism the developer received.
The CDR members did acknowledge that they liked the building more than the last time. Before the project ran into a series of delays last year, the Toll Brothers presented an earlier, even taller tower to the CDR board in an information-only session.
The front of that version came clad in red brick—highly unusual for a skyscraper—in an effort to complement the surrounding historic block in building materials, if not in size. That design did not sit well with many observers, including the CDR board, who felt it’s effort at homage was ham-fisted. No amount of brick would disguise the fact that the building was almost ten times as tall as its neighbors on Jewelers’ Row.
The new design just attempts to reflect the surrounding buildings on its bottom three levels, which is the only place where brick is employed. The base of the building is divided into four narrow sections to better reflect the surrounding rowhouse-like businesses. The rest of the building, the residential skyscraper itself, is made of largely undifferentiated glass.
This alteration got another frosty reception from the board and from the Planning Commission, which noted that the condo tower’s monotony makes it looks like a commercial office high rise.
Renowned architect Cecil Baker agreed, describing it as, “like something plunked out of the sky and coming down on this rather delicate neighborhood.”
The developer on the board, Leo Addimando, said he liked that they weren’t trying to build a faux-historic brick tower, and that the base would better reflect the stores around it. But it still didn’t quite work.
“I think glass is the appropriate material for the tower, but there needs to be more work done to connect the podium to the tower itself,” said Addimando, who is a Managing Partner and Co-Founder of Alterra Property Group.
Addimando said he also shared the concerns of neighbors who fear the disruption caused by the construction and additional traffic on 7th Street, a narrow, one-way, two-lane thoroughfare that Toll hopes to use for deliveries, garbage removal, and other necessities. (Parking is being provided off-site.)
Before the board asked Toll to return, Trainer begged them to do better. The project is probably moving forward, so it is important that it be a success.
“This project has the potential to be a model for how cities deal with historic neighborhoods,” said Trainer. “Whether through preservation or how a new building’s base fits in with the surroundings. We want to come back to this when it is done and say Jewelers Row as an idea or a place has been preserved.”