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Toll Bros. shrugs off call for Jewelers Row preservation in condo plan

Artist's rendering of Toll Bros.'s planned condo tower on Jewelers Row, as seen from street level looking southwest.
Artist's rendering of Toll Bros.'s planned condo tower on Jewelers Row, as seen from street level looking southwest.Read moreSLCE Architects

Developer Toll Bros. has cast aside calls to preserve at least parts of the aged buildings on Center City's Jewelers Row, where it plans a luxury condo tower, proposing instead a contemporary design with traditional flourishes.

The Horsham-based company's latest design for the project calls for a 29-story, 115-unit building with a new brick facade rising over the venerable Sansom Street shopping enclave, according to plans presented Tuesday night to the Washington Square West Civic Association, a neighborhood group.

A more contemporary-looking alternative Sansom Street facade, with more expansive windows and less brick, also was presented.

The plans' release comes as Toll Bros. continues to face resistance from preservationists over the demolition of five Jewelers Row buildings from the 18th and early 19th centuries, which the nearly $100 million 702 Sansom Street project would replace.

Brian Emmons, vice president of Toll Bros.' City Living division, said in an interview before the presentation Tuesday that most of the development site's immediate neighbors back the project.

"They believe that having our 200 residents going out onto Sansom Street will bring life and eyes and ears to the street," Emmons said.

The presentation before the Washington Square neighborhood group is a formal step toward final city approvals for the project, which also must go before Philadelphia's Civic Design Review board. Suggestions offered by the neighborhood group and the design review board are both nonbinding.

Under the current plan, no zoning variances or other relief would be needed for construction to commence, Emmons said.

Historic preservationists have sought to stymie the Toll proposal since it became public in August, with attempts to appeal its zoning approvals and an effort to have the buildings slated for demolition declared historic assets.

A further appeal of the project's demolition permit is scheduled for Jan. 31.

Mayor Kenney, who had earlier called on Toll Bros. to at least preserve the existing buildings' facades as part of the development plan, said in an emailed statement that the proposal presented Tuesday was "respectful of the design elements present on the block frontage."

"I do believe that Toll Bros. remains committed to maintaining Jewelers Row as a historical, cultural gem," Kenney said.

Emmons said differing window and ceiling heights across the buildings at the development site had made retaining their facades unfeasible.

Toll's plan, by New York-based SLCE Architects, instead adopts design elements from surrounding buildings — such as their window styling and brick details — without copying them explicitly, Emmons said.

The plan – and the more-contemporary alternative design – also retains Sansom Street's four-story-high "cornice line" with a balcony-like setback at a height matching other buildings' roofs.

The southern-facing side, overlooking Walnut Street and Washington Square park, is to be sheathed in mirrored glass.

"That facade will be much more sleek and welcoming to the skyline on the park side," Emmons said. "We wanted to make sure the project weaved into the fabric of the neighborhood didn't detract from it."

The project includes no on-site parking, though spaces will be available by valet to residents at the nearby garage at Seventh and Market Streets.

Four existing Jewelers Row merchants — two from among those to be displaced by the project and two from elsewhere on the street — have expressed interest in occupying parts of the tower's 2,600 square feet of planned retail space, said Emmons, though he declined to identify them.

Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said he was saddened that no effort was being made to retain existing buildings at the site.

"We're disappointed that there's no preservation in their plan, and that they're not proposing to retain any of the facades," Steinke said.

Hy Goldberg, head of the Jewelers Row Business Association and the owner of Safian & Rudolph jewelry store, said that although he was originally skeptical of the Toll Bros. plan, he and most other property owners on the street have come to embrace it.

"We see it as a reinforcement of the value of the area," Goldberg said. "It seems to maintain the flavor of what Jewelers Row is."

But Frank G. Schaffer, proprietor of FGS Gems in one of the buildings eyed for demolition, said many on the street are underestimating the appetite that developers will have for space on Jewelers Row if the Toll Bros. project is successful.

He predicted that the street's mercantile identity would soon be eclipsed by a cluster of new residential towers.

"If they really think that Jewelers Row will continue to survive after this construction, they are sadly mistaken," said Schaffer, who is seeking a new location for his business on another street.