“I think we’ve come to this conclusion reluctantly, that there really is no way, given the strength of the opposition, to the kind of project that would preserve the building,” Hollenberg said. “There does not seem to be a way to do so.”
Hollenberg’s reluctance is earnest, and Penn has arrived at this position after exhausting other preservation-minded options. Hollenberg is not only an architect, but a committed preservationist who teaches in Penn’s preservation program. As a student there I learned the concept of hardship in his course. He’s not taking this process lightly.
Given the range of rents which Penn and Equinox would like the residential development to support (a mid-market approach that is geared at graduate students), they have determined that a restoration solution would require a seven-story building. Any five-story solution, which the neighborhood would prefer, would necessitate demolition. The Historical Commission’s financial hardship consultant has agreed [pdf] with the numbers supporting this position.
But Penn’s case brings up a mixed message. Penn has put forward a seven-story project (including restoration) and a five-story project (including demolition) that are both financially feasible. So how can Penn claim a financial hardship?
“I think the financial hardship of this property is its zoning,” Hollenberg explained. Given the property’s R5A zoning, anything over three stories will require a zoning variance. And in order to get that variance, Penn wants the support of the neighborhood when it goes before the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Based on the objections of the Spruce Hill Community Association and Woodland Terrace Homeowners Association, it’s Penn’s calculation that the path of least neighborhood conflict is the one of demolition.
So, as Hollenberg explained, the decision to go for a hardship “comes down to our assessment of community relations."
So the question is: Will the neighborhood support the zoning variances required? Even if Penn could make a compelling case before the Zoning Board of Adjustment for its seven-story plus restoration solution, going against the neighborhood’s wishes is bad politics along Penn’s professed western boarder.
Spruce Hill’s Barry Grossbach affirmed that SHCA took a zoning position here. They remain committed to neighborhood preservation, and have taken the position that no new building over five stories tall will win his committee’s approval. But Grossbach is quick to point out, “We have not signed off on any project.”
That’s because Penn hasn’t formally gone through the zoning process.