Five buildings, from 702 to 710 Sansom Street, would be demolished to make way for the Toll Brothers' 29-story condo project.

Five buildings, from 702 to 710 Sansom Street, would be demolished to make way for the Toll Brothers' 29-story condo project.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Why this Jewelers Row landlord sold to Toll Brothers

There’s a story behind Roberto Pupo’s decision, which will reshape the corridor.

Five buildings, from 702 to 710 Sansom Street, would be demolished to make way for the Toll Brothers' 29-story condo project.

Five buildings, from 702 to 710 Sansom Street, would be demolished to make way for the Toll Brothers' 29-story condo project.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn
Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

Roberto Pupo’s shop is kind of hidden. The landlord who’s selling three buildings to the suburban developers Toll Brothers for their proposed 29-story condo tower on Jewelers Row works in a store with no flashy signage, tucked toward the back of a building across the street from where the high-rise would be. The Toll Brothers tower would take up five lots. The other two proprietors who are selling to the real estate firm own single units; Pupo’s the only one selling three. When asked why he’s selling, why he’s supporting a project that’s spurred contentious debate in the neighborhood and a preservation crisis in the city, he insists that the project will help the Row, not hurt it.

But that’s not the whole story.

Jewelers Row is the oldest diamond district— an area where you can get the stones cut, polished, and set— in the country and the second-largest after New York. Though only a few of the buildings have survived from the original block built circa 1799, according to PhillyHistory.org, that block was the first speculative housing development in the nation, and the first rowhouse block of its kind, where 22 units were ordered together as a strip under the same façade design. It set a template for Philadelphia’s housing patterns and architectural identity. The three surviving buildings are on the city’s historic register. The rest of the south side of the 700-block of Sansom isn’t. In early November, the Philadelphia Historical Commission tabled deciding on nominations to designate three of the units slated for demolition for the condos, pushing the review off for 90 days.

Toll would raze five buildings. In a statement to Billy Penn, Toll Brothers City Living spokesman Tim Spreitzer wrote:

Toll Brothers is committed to ensuring that our Washington Square development is respectful of the Jewelers’ Row heritage and is appropriate for the block. We have worked for months on our designs and have received positive feedback from a wide range of public and private stakeholders, and design experts.  We are continuing the due process of development, which has included – and will continue to include – meeting with several community groups, the City and the Civic Design Review board.”

There have been murmurs on the Row that since Pupo is ill, the sale is part of sorting out his affairs. He confirms that he has stage-4 prostate cancer. According to the Mayo Clinic, most cases of this cancer are incurable. But Pupo rejects the notion that his illness has anything to do with selling his property, insisting it’s the way business on the strip has gone.

Pupo, 65, has worked in the trade since ’68, not long after he came to Philadelphia as a teen. In the last half century, business owners say, a series of trends has impacted business on the corridor: The growth of suburbs, the mall boom. In the mid-80s, an NBC10 investigative reporter busted a jeweler on the Row for misrepresenting his diamonds, a scandal that fanned the flames of consumer distrust. Most recently, e-commerce began to chip away at brick-and-mortar sales.

“Business is so bad. The internet is killing us,” Pupo said. (Reports have noted the sales are complete. The city has yet to list Toll Brothers as the owners on their Property website.) His humor can be sardonic: “Sometimes we’re jealous of a hot dog man— he makes more than us.”

Pupo really doesn’t like that foot traffic was low around Christmastime. Jeffrey Barsky, the owner of Barsky Diamonds, doesn’t like that either.

“Back in the day, [before the holiday] you’d hear steam machines. You’d hear banging. You’d hear the hustle and bustle of Sansom Street. Now, before Christmas, what do you hear? Peace and quiet,” Barsky explained. The noise meant business.

Shoppers along the Row in 1980.

Shoppers along the Row in 1980.

Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives

Pupo noted that property owners on the Row are overwhelmingly on his side, in favor of the tower. That is true. Rick Spitzborg, president of the Washington Square West Civic Association, explained that there isn’t consensus, but clear factions. The neighborhood group has heard support from owners in contrast to anxieties from renters, “who are very concerned that they may lose where they live or work.” Among opponents — renters and the preservation-minded — of the plan, there is a deep concern that the rising rents could displace even more artisans and residents, if not encourage more development, read: more demolitions.

Property owners are excited about what an influx of new residents — and ones with the means to afford a Center City luxury apartment — could mean for the block. Renters against the plan see it differently.

The whole street will die,” Frank Schaffer, who owns a gem-cutting business in one of Pupo’s buildings, told Billy Penn last month. “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.”

Maryanne Ritter, a jeweler several doors down, told the AP that her business wouldn’t survive relocation. “As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “they ruined my life.”

Schaffer told the New York Times  in October that the project would retire him. He explained this morning that he said that more jokingly. He’s hoping to buy a building somewhere in Old City. He won’t stay on the Row.

“After giving more more than $500,000 in rent to Roberto Pupo for the last eight years, I don’t want to get into a situation again,” he explained.

“Jewelers Row will cease to exist,” he said. He pointed to some vacancies in nearby storefronts. “These guys aren’t even asking me if they want me to buy their building. They’re holding out for Toll Brothers.”

Pupo doesn’t see how preservation would help business. “Save Jewelers Row? this is not the way to save it.” He offers the horse and buggies that ride by the area as an example. “They say this is Jewelers Row, the oldest diamond row in the country. Then they go to Sixth and Market and hop on the bus to King of Prussia. We get three tourists out of 5,000.”

According to Forbes, the fine jewelry market is growing, largely due to online sales. Consumers still like to see the diamond before they buy — last year, only 4 to 5 percent of the market was e-commerce. But that’s expected to double by the end of the decade. Reporters have noted that millennials don’t seem to be buying fine jewelry with the same appreciation their grandparents had, preferring more “value conscious” shopping.  Overseas manufacturing is another source of competition for the small businesses along the Row.

Jewelers on the corridor fondly recall when the street was the place to go, before a slow decline began when city began to lose residents to the suburbs in the ’50s. Today, it is still endowed with a unique range of skills and services. It’s not everywhere that shoppers can order custom jewelry and start from the loose diamonds of their choosing. It’s also not common to that find that many jewelry specialists, from Swiss watches, to rare gems to sheet metals, in close proximity. These are of course the features of a jewelry district, an urban model, and with cities back in fashion and a retail boom in the neighborhood, business owners wonder if it’ll soon be their time again. Right now, it’s still tough. Unlike what shoppers might experience with a big box retailer in a suburban mall, it’s tough to park for cheap nearby. Ron Panepinto, who’s selling 702 Sansom St. to Toll, explained that he offers free parking as an inducement.

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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Barsky believes that it’s a particularly tough situation for new businesses there, and that “taxes in the city don’t help.”

Panepinto had a stronger take: “If I was opening a new jewelry store, this is the last place I’d want to be because there’s so much competition… The tough reality of it is there’s too many stores and not enough customers.”

Barsky is optimistic about what the condos could do for public safety. His store has had two break-ins in the last two years, where the business suffered $1 million in losses overall. There is a police detail on Jewelers Row, but their shifts don’t cover all 24 hours of the day. Barsky welcomes more eyes on the street, but also the security personnel the tower’s management would hire.                                     

Business owners say the corridor lacks support from the city, whether it be in the form of promotion or programs for struggling businesses.               

The Commerce Department works to connect entrepreneurs to several programs, none of which specifically cater to artisans or niche corridors. Mayor Jim Kenney has made commercial corridors a major focus for his administration, and yet strips like Fabric Row, Jewelers Row and Antique Row receive no specific resources. Dawn Summerville, senior director of business retention and attraction at the department, said businesses on the Row can seek Job Creation Tax Credits, reimbursements for security cameras through the SafeCam program, referrals to small business development centers and grants through The Merchant Fund.

“The resources that we have in place are for all businesses,” Summerville explained, rather than particular trades.“There have been several meetings down there … Some owners are saying they’re fine. Some of this issue is the responsibility of the business to make sure that they say on trend.”

The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy supports two programs that artisans can take an advantage of, though: an educational series called Creative Industries and an intro to entrepreneurship course at the Corzo Center.

Pupo, who staunchly refused to be photographed for this article, would like to know what’s an example of a success story. Preservationists, he said, “are bragging on Antique Row.” He’s referring of the stretch of Pine Street between Ninth and Broad. “It looks depressed,” he deadpanned. Now, it doesn’t look rough, but it will have you wonder: Where are the antique stores?

He lives in Center City. He likes Philly. How did this Roman pick here? “That’s where the airplane landed,” he said.  He’s had roughly 49 years on the Row. That number made me say, “That’s beautiful.” He shook his head.

“It’s not beautiful, I just made a nice living. Could’ve been a plumber,” he replied sternly. “ The difference between a plumber and jeweler is nobody argues with the plumber.”

***

Washington Square West Civic Association President Rick Spitzborg has been in the neighborhood group for seven years. When he started, he remembers additions to neighbors’ homes to be typical requests. The stakes have gotten higher.

“Center City and Wash West has been a new focal point for a lot of other kinds of development,” he said.

According to a December 2016 Center City District report, retail rents in the area have risen more quickly than they have in any comparable city, except for Miami. With a series of huge development projects in Market East, Old City and Washington Square in the works, many opponents have argued that the Toll Brothers towers would accelerate the pace of rising rents that are already steep, as well as more development that could bust up the Row.

Schaffer, the gem-cutter at FGS Gems based out of 708 Sansom St., is one of the wary.  He told the New York Times that he currently pays $6,200 each month. He told the paper that he was offered the chance to move into a slightly larger shop than the one he currently occupies, but opted not to take it, as it wasn’t in move-in condition, had no AC and was too expensive.

“Here’s the funny thing,” he told Philadelphia Weekly. “I’ve had conversations with jewelers that say ‘Oh, this is going to be a good thing,’ but wait until they start ripping up the street and start saying ‘eminent domain.’ I bet you they’ll shut up then.”

Patrick Grossi, director of advocacy at the Preservation Alliance, considers Jewelers Row telling.

“I think it really kind of highlights this moment that we’re in, in terms of mostly welcome development— new housing, new retail…” he said. “It’s increasingly coming at the cost of occupied and operational historical buildings.”

“People always ask preservationists, ‘Why are you coming out of the woodwork now? You’re so reactive.’ There’s some truth to that. The Historical Commission — and to some degree, my office — doesn’t have the resources to be proactive.” The Historical Commission has a budget of $500,000 annually. In late 2015, the commission’s then-director Jon Farnham told PlanPhilly, “We’ve done some analyses and determined that it’s funded at a level maybe half to a third of what comparable cities fund their preservation agencies.”  

When asked for the the sum of the alliance’s budget, Grossi wouldn’t say, but replied, “I’ll put it this way: We have a staff of five.”

The city’s preservation infrastructure has deep, troubling shortcomings, he explained. For example: “The City of Philadelphia has never conducted a citywide resource inventory, in a top-to-bottom, comprehensive way with an eye for historic buildings. We’ve never done this kind of master list that helps guide development, reuse and preservation.”

With a list like that, the commission could assess and strategize. But without one, and short on resources more generally, it’s a constant grind between the impending demolition crisis of the day and long-term policy goals, pushing for more tax incentive programs or discussions around the zoning code.

Gregory Tung, co-founding principal of San Francisco-based urban design firm Freedman, Tung and Sasaki, said the Toll Brothers tower raised concerns. Toll, after initially proposing a 16-story tower, updated their proposal nearly doubling its height to 29 stories. Most buildings on the block are three or four stories tall.

“Once you put in 29 stories, it becomes kind of canyon-like,” he told Billy Penn; construction could change wind impacts, and of course sunlight access.

Even with an influx of new residents, the potential benefits on retail likely wouldn’t be tremendous, With high-rise towers, the retail gains “of having a residential population benefit mainly restaurants, cafes, convenience stores, dry cleaners,” he explained.  “When it comes to things like furnishings and jewelry, those purchases are more discretionary. Impacts will be incremental.”

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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Grossi is convinced that with the range of businesses and on-hand services, Jewelers Row is an asset to the city. He called it a true “makerspace,” somewhat jokingly, somewhat not. Isn’t that what the kids are calling workshops with skilled craftspeople on deck these days? Jewelers Row has been that, even as printing and engraving shops preceded the gems. “There’s no reason it can’t continue to do that even if the occupants change,” said Grossi. “There are some arguing that the jewelry trade doesn’t have value anymore, ergo, the block doesn’t have value anymore. That’s too convenient.”

Rich Goldberg, the owner of Safian & Rudolph and a board member of the Jewelers Row Association, considers himself pro-preservation and a fan of the alliance. He stood and asked me to walk to the window, which faces the buildings that would be lost, so he can really show me how sees the architecture. On the corner at 700 Sansom St. sits an original rowhouse from that first 1799 block. It’s modest and lovely. “If they touch that, I’d be furious,” he said. That’s the only historic building he sees.

With a number of high-profile developments coming nearby, including the Gallery farther north and the luxury apartments coming to the Curtis Center across the street, he smiles as he explained that he sees a possible renaissance for district. Without the tower, “20, 30 years from now people are going to say, well wouldn’t that have [brought] development to Jewelers Row to help sustain it?”

While Toll has said they will aim to maintain the block’s character, they haven’t committed to keeping the façades, as Kenney has asked Toll to do. Goldberg said Toll gave word to the association that preserving the façades was physically impossible. But the developers shared, he adds, that the first few floors would be brick and higher stories would be set 15 feet back to mitigate shadowing.

Goldberg welcomes the project. “I think the preservation alliance has their work cut out for them,” he said. “If they think there’s other historic buildings on the street, now’s the time.”

Pupo doesn’t want to discuss the sale. “I’m 65 years old, so I’m looking to move on,” he offers as explanation. He mentioned he’s done with radiation for his cancer, but doesn’t want to discuss his illness further. Move on how, though? Retire?

“I don’t know what it means but I need to find the next step,” he said. “I like the business but there’s no business. Might as well start finding it now while I have time.”