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Toll Bros.'s shorter, glassier Jewelers Row tower proposal gets first public airing

Toll is presenting its plans for the 700 block of Sansom Street to the Washington Square West Civic Association almost a year to the day after its last appearance before the group for the condo proposal.

Artist's rendering of bottom section of Toll Bros.'s proposed Jewelers Row condo tower, as seen from corner of Seventh and Sansom Streets.
Artist's rendering of bottom section of Toll Bros.'s proposed Jewelers Row condo tower, as seen from corner of Seventh and Sansom Streets.Read moreSLCE Architects

Toll Bros. has gone back before the neighborhood group for the area around Jewelers Row with a glassier, slightly shrunken version of the condo tower that it has spent the last year and a half seeking permission to build on the storied Center City shopping street.

The Horsham-based home builder's latest proposal calls for a 24-story glass tower with 85 condos atop a glass-and-brick base with ground-floor retail on the 700 block of Sansom Street. It was presented to the Washington Square West Civic Association on Tuesday, almost a year to the day after its last appearance before the group to discuss what was then a 29-story, 115-unit building.

The new version also does away with last year's plan to use brick running up the tower's Sansom Street-facing side, with a glass outer wall facing Washington Square park. Jim Davidson of New York-based SLCE Architecture, which designed the building, told meeting attendants that Toll opted for an all-glass tower atop the four-story base instead in response to criticisms that the tall brick facade overwhelmed the streetscape.

"We've simplified the design and are relying on the sculptural quality of the building," he said.

One audience member said he liked the new design better, prompting cheers of agreement from the crowd, which included a large group from the building trade unions.

But Paul Steinke, who has been fighting the proposal as president of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, characterized it as looking "like an alien spaceship in a small village" and voiced concern for the street's merchants if the street is blocked for construction.

"If they shut down the street for two years, it's the death knell for Jewelers Row," he said.

Others said they worried that the influx of residents would worsen traffic in the area.

Toll first announced its plan in August 2016 to demolish the jewelry shop buildings between 702 and 710 Sansom St., along with a contiguous property at 128 S. Seventh St., and to replace them with a 16-story condo tower. The proposal drew swift condemnation from Philadelphia's historic preservation community, which said the buildings were worthy of protection, as well as from some of the building's tenants.

By July 2017, Toll had encountered difficulties making what had grown into the 29-story proposal fit within height limits imposed by area zoning rules and announced that the planned tower would lose a few stories to clear those hurdles.

The new version reduces the building's height but expands the project's footprint to encompass an adjacent property that it now has under contract to buy, Von Spreckelsen, the New York-based president of Toll's urban-focused City Living division, said in an interview earlier Tuesday. While plans call for the building on that property, the home of the Sidney Rosen Co. jewelry shop at 712-714 Sansom St., to remain unaltered, its addition to the project site gives the developer more "floor area" to add to the tower under the city's zoning rules.

The plan for the 24-story tower on the consolidated parcel was approved last month by the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections, conditional on its presentation to the Planning Commission's Civic Design Review board, which makes nonbinding suggestions on the city's biggest development proposals.

Toll expects to present its plans to the design panel on Feb. 6, Von Spreckelsen said. He declined to speculate on a timeline for beginning work on the project, pending the board's feedback.

Another potential holdup could come from a legal challenge by the Preservation Alliance to the project's demolition permits.

A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge is scheduled to hear arguments on Feb. 28 surrounding the preservation group's argument that the 128 S. Seventh St. property should have qualified for historic protections, amid other claims.

The Preservation Alliance filed the court challenge after the Licenses and Inspections Department's review board dismissed an earlier appeal of the demolition permit.

Von Spreckelsen said Toll would not begin demolition work until the case was resolved.

"We're waiting to see what the outcome of that appeal is going to be," he said.