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Uncertainty surrounds Toll Bros.'s Jewelers Row plans as merchants lament

Maryanne S. Ritter has spent her life on Jewelers Row, working under the late gemstone stalwart Louis Neff before starting her own shop 12 years ago.

Maryanne S. Ritter has spent her life on Jewelers Row, working under the late gemstone stalwart Louis Neff before starting her own shop 12 years ago.

But after learning that Toll Bros. Inc. wants to build a 16-story apartment or condo building on the street that would displace her store and others, she's unsure what the future will hold.

"This is all part of Philadelphia history that I would have thought worth preserving," Ritter, 66, said Friday of the enclave of engravers, jewelry makers, and other artisans on the 700 block of Sansom Street. "This is my life they're screwing with."

A day after city officials confirmed Toll's moves to clear five properties from Jewelers Row and replace them with an 80-unit tower, a pall of uncertainty has settled over the street.

Retailers and craftspeople who have operated on the row for years - if not decades - huddled on sidewalks sharing information, wondering how they'd been kept in the dark about Toll's plans.

"I'm so angry, it's unbelievable," said Frank G. Schaffer, proprietor of FGS Gems in one of the Jewelers Row buildings eyed for demolition. "You don't just uproot a business like this and move."

Covered by Toll's demolition-permit application are the five properties between 702 and 710 Sansom, and a contiguous property at 128 S. Seventh St.

City records do not show any of the properties as having been acquired by Horsham-based Toll.

Toll spokesman Michael Duff had no immediate comment Friday.

The Sansom Street jewelers weren't the only ones distressed by Toll's plans.

An online petition posted late Thursday asking Philadelphia planning and development director Anne Fadullon to intervene against the development had attracted more than 1,000 signatures by late Friday afternoon.

Fadullon said in an statement that she welcomes the historic preservation community's input on the proposal and hopes the situation leads "to a broader conversation of how we can meet both our historic preservation responsibilities and our economic development needs."

City Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district includes the development site, said he is working to convene a meeting between Toll and Jewelers Row businesses.

Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, said his group is gearing up to oppose the project. He declined to discuss steps the group might take, but conceded the plan may be difficult to fight because the affected buildings are not historically protected and the tower fits area zoning.

"I don't want to tip our hand in any particular way," he said, "to the extent we have a hand."

Questions also remained over the timing for the buildings' demolition, set to be considered by Department of Licenses and Inspections permitting staff by Sept. 1.

Margie Cedrone, who specializes in pearls on Floor Two of 702 Sansom St., said she was told by her landlord, jeweler Ron Panepinto, that she would not have to move until February at the earliest.

Panepinto is the brother of Common Pleas Court Judge Paul Panepinto. The brothers jointly owned the 702 Sansom property until 2011, when it was transferred to Ron Panepinto individually, according to records filed with the city.

Phone messages left for each were not returned.

A message left for Robert Robbins - whose Elkins Park address matches that of 704 Sansom St. owner 704 Associates - also was not returned.

Roberto Pupa, owner of 706-10 Sansom St., said he had no agreement to sell his property and knew nothing about Toll's plans.

"They mentioned something, but there was no offer," he said. "I walk up and down the street and make offers to everyone. It doesn't mean anything. Zero."

215-854-2615 @jacobadelman