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Too-tall townhomes to be jacked up to lop off 22 inches

Neighbors complained, L&I measured. The in-the-works Constitution Court townhouses at 3rd and Reed in South Philadelphia are about 22 inches taller than the variance granted to developer and former Philadelphia jeweler-to-the-stars Barry Sable.

"We shut them down," said L&I spokeswoman Rebecca Swanson.

To meet L&I's demand that the Pennsport structure shrink to the 43-feet, one-and-a-half inches the variance says is the max and get building again, Sable intends to lift the house with a technique used to raise houses at the Shore above storm surge, Swanson said. But instead of making the structure taller, "they will lift it up, chop off 22 inches, and put it back down on the foundation," she said.

Swanson said the alterations permit Sable applied for to do this work has been under review, but she expects it will be issued soon, perhaps even Friday. "They had to present tons of engineering plans, and we had to research the contractor's experience," she said. "They need right-of-way permits to close Reed and 3rd. It's going to be a pretty big operation." The part to be chopped off: A portion of the first-floor walls.

L&I inspectors will be on hand to watch, Swanson said. "People haven't seen it before."

On Thursday, the site was quiet. Foundations are laid. The external structure for only a fraction of the 12 planned homes has been built – two of them, said Pennsport Civic Association President Jim Moylan.

Reached by phone, Sable said until he gets the alterations permit, he doesn't want to discuss how the existing structure got too tall, or the procedure that will be used to shorten it.

"I build homes the way I built jewelry," he said. "I don't take shortcuts. I build homes the way the people would want homes built ... the way I would want to build for myself." With 10 years into this business, Sable said he's still learning, but intends to become a "master" of home building in the way that he was a master of jewelry making.

"We just hit a hiccup, it's not the end of the world," he said. "It took me time to figure out how to rectify it. I'm now on that course. I need to get these permits. I don't care about girls, poker, golf or the world economy. The one and only thing is my permits."

Pennsport President Moylan said his community voted to support the zoning variance that allows Sable to build beyond the 39-foot limit set for the neighborhood, as well as several other variances the project needed, and Pennsport remains in support of the project designed by  Harman Deutsch Architecture – so long as it comes down to size.

"If he stays within the realms of what he was granted, that's fine. But we have zero interest in granting him another variance."

L&I spokeswoman Swanson said Sable has some additional hurdles to clear before work can resume. Inspectors have cited the project for other problems, including displaying a sign without a permit and having a fence that protruded onto the sidewalk. She said it may be that these problems have been addressed, and inspectors haven't cleared them yet because these things are more "minor" and the focus has been on the larger, height issue. Previously, the project was also cited for failing to protect a neighboring property from water damage, she said. Flashing was put on that property.

Swanson said that the developer has been given permission to do some backfill around the rear foundations. But other than that, "he's really not been able to work since early October."

L&I did some inspections – including checking the height – based on complaints from neighbors, Swanson said. But "we very closely monitored this project from the very beginning, starting with the demolition of the church. It was a large building, in a residential neighborhood on a bus route."

Constitution Court will rise from the former site of St. John the Evangelist Church. The city put new, more stringent procedures in place for demolitions in the wake of the June collapse of a building under demolition at 22nd and Market streets. Six people were killed, and 14 injured.

Sable said he hopes to have the 3,800-square-foot, four-story homes – which will feature hardwood floors, rooftop decks with multiple city views and garages with optional hydraulic lifts that accommodate two cars – ready for the spring housing market.

"We've hired all the right people to do this properly. We're going to get in, get out and go back to normalcy."

Common at the shore, Sable knows the lifting is unusual for the city. "Barry Sable is up to the task of unusual things," he said. "I've tackled a whole lot of things much more difficult than this and came out on the top end."

In 1996, Sable was sentenced to four months in prison, a fine and community service following a guilty plea for tax evasion.

Sable said he's never elected to talk about what really happened, and "people don't know the facts. They just know what has been printed." Here's what The Inquirer printed.

Sable said his reputation was beyond reproach. "People were treated the way I want to be treated, which is exactly what I'm attempting to do in the house building business," he said.

Things should have been dramatically different back then, he said. "The only thing I can tell you, is once you are in the system, you never want to be involved in the system again," he said. "My people fumbled the ball going into the endzone."

His jewelry customers included Will Smith, Charles Barkley and many other famous and successful people, he said. "People are always gunning for you when you're in the fast lane." is dedicated to covering design, planning and development issues in Philadelphia. The news website is a project of PennPraxis, the clinical arm of the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania. It is funded by the William Penn Foundation