Jewelers Row
Flickr via Terry Robinson

Can anything stop the suddenly-taller Toll Brothers condos on Jewelers Row?

The company says it’s allowed to nearly double its new project; some challenges await.

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Updated at 4:47 pm Friday

After Toll Brothers has literally almost doubled the size of the shadow it’s planning to cast over Jewelers Row, Maryanne Ritter is trying to see the light. She’s located in one of five buildings between 702 and 710 Sansom St. that will be demolished for the planned apartment tower, and hopes the new 29-story plan will garner more opposition than the 16-story plan.      

“Maybe with them seeing 29 stories,” Maryanne Ritter said of fellow store owners on the street, “they’re going to realize this is a project that is going to affect every person on Jewelers Row.”

Until earlier this week, a Toll Brothers plan for a new apartment tower on Jewelers Row had called for the construction of a 16-story building. All of a sudden the plan switched to 29 stories. With it came plenty of questions, and for opponents, a renewal in their efforts to halt construction or at least make sure the charm of Jewelers Row is left intact.

“I think in most cases developers announce what they’re planning to build and they either build it or they don’t,” said Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. “A big radical change like this is not something I can recall happening.”

Opponents of the Toll Brothers’ proposed development have plenty of questions about the decision to nearly double the size of the tower: Will they need to demolish more buildings? Did they get “by-right” approval for this? Did they purchase air rights, i.e. new space above the surface?

In a statement to Billy Penn, Timothy Spreitzer, a spokesperson for Toll Brothers City Living, said more buildings would not need to be demolished, but he did not explain how they’d be able to extend the height of the tower with the same footprint. He said a 29-story structure is permitted by the current zoning. If that’s the case, Toll Brothers will have to do little more than go through steps the company already has.

In a statement issued late Friday, Mayor Jim Kenney called the radically changed proposal “deeply disturbing,” adding that while the city couldn’t stop the project, he’s hoping to see “serious recommendations” from the city’s Civic Design Review Board.

When Toll Brothers first applied for zoning for its 16-story project, the Department of Licenses and Inspections granted the company a “by-right” zoning permit. This means the use, dimensions, parking plans and other aspects of the building fit within current zoning regulations and the only step left in the process for approval was for meetings with the Washington Square West Civic Association and the Civic Design Review Committee.  

The new proposal requires the Toll Brothers to apply for a permit with L&I again, and Karen Guss, a spokesperson for L&I, said the company has done so. Spreitzer said the new specifications will fit acceptable zoning standards for the site.

Indeed, just down the street at 700 Walnut, the St. James stands 45 stories high. Likely the only way the 29-story version of the Toll Brothers’ apartment tower could get rejected is through neighborhood opposition and the Civic Design Review Committee or a lawsuit.

The neighborhood association originally scheduled a discussion of the Jewelers Row project for Dec. 27. It’s unclear whether changes to the plan will cause that meeting to move, and Wash Square West Civic Association leader Jonathan Broh did not respond to a request for comment.

If the neighborhood group opposes the tower— and indications are it will — the chances of the 29-story tower getting approved would decrease. The Civic Design Review Committee and other zoning-based groups often follow the recommendations of neighborhood associations, but it’s never a guarantee. Last month in Fishtown, the Zoning Board of Adjustment approved the conversion of St. Laurentius Church into an apartment building despite opposition from the Fishtown Neighbors Association. 

Meanwhile, the Preservation Alliance group has until the end of today to file a challenge to demolition appeals granted by L&I to the Toll Brothers for the Jewelers Row buildings between 702 and 710 Sansom. Steinke said his group’s argument is that because historical nominations on the properties are pending the demolition permits should be invalid.

Councilman Mark Squilla governs over the district in which Jewelers Row is located. Through his chief of staff, Anne Kelly King, Squilla turned down an interview request about the development, saying he wanted to withhold comment until he has seen the new plans. King said Squilla “remains committed to maintaining the historic fabric of Jewelers Row.”

A few weeks ago, Mayor Jim Kenney requested the Toll Brothers “go above and beyond what the law requires” to preserve the historic nature of the area. Spreitzer said Toll Brothers intends to work with Kenney.

To store owner Frank Schaffer, the possibility seems unlikely, especially after news broke the company wanted to build a 29-story tower.

“I have no faith whatsoever,” he said. “I lost faith a long time ago when Councilman Squilla kept telling me it’s ‘by-right.’…The whole street will die. It’s not going to revitalize the whole street. At no time you stick a hole in the ground for three years will it be good for business.”

Full statement from Mayor Jim Kenney on the proposal:

“The news that Toll Brothers intends to double the height of its Jewelers’ Row project and that they will not maintain the second and third floor facades is deeply disturbing. I had hoped from our previous conversations that they intended to be a good corporate citizen, injecting much needed investment into the area while still respecting its character, but this information calls that into question. While, regrettably, the City, including the Historical Commission, does not have the legal ability to stop the project from moving forward, I am urging Toll Brothers to reconsider these decisions. I expect the Civic Design Review Board to make serious recommendations that will respect the historic nature of the properties, and I urge the Toll Brothers to adopt those recommendations or make the necessary adjustments on their own. If they do not, Toll Brothers will be sending a clear message that they no longer wish to have a productive relationship with the City of Philadelphia.”