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Finally completed, 500 Walnut is the latest ultra-luxury building to join Philly's skyline

Developer Tom Scannapieco said Tuesday that he has two-thirds of his 35 residences under agreement. He hopes to finish sales at the property by spring.

The 500 Walnut condominiums, all glass and steel, rise over Walnut Street and Fifth Street on Tuesday — the day of its grand opening.
The 500 Walnut condominiums, all glass and steel, rise over Walnut Street and Fifth Street on Tuesday — the day of its grand opening.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

The condominium tower that made Philadelphia history last year when it sold its penthouse for a record-breaking $17.85 million celebrated its grand opening Tuesday, at a ceremony joined by Mayor Kenney, city officials, and developers from across the region.

The completion of 500 Walnut, the 26-story high-rise that sits across from Independence Hall, marks the end of the more than three-year endeavor by developer Tom Scannapieco to build on one of Philadelphia's more challenging sites. Even more, with most condos in the building priced between $3.1 million and $9 million, 500 Walnut adds yet another ultra-luxury residential tower to Philadelphia's skyline — signaling an ever-growing category of high-end real estate in the city as Philadelphia continues to grow wealthier and more attractive.

"We strove to build a world-class building, the likes of which Philadelphia has not yet seen," Scannapieco said at the event, as Kenney, City Councilman Mark Squilla, and architect Cecil Baker flanked him. Completing such a building, Scannapieco added, was "the pinnacle of my success."

Getting to this point, however, was no easy feat for the Bucks County-based developer and his team of architects and engineers. Before Scannapieco purchased the 18,155-square-foot site in May 2014 for $8.5 million, the land had sat vacant for more than a decade as numerous local and national developers, including 500-506 Walnut Street Associates, tried — and failed — to make a project work. Situated just steps from Independence National Historical Park, special attention had to be paid to not distract from the view from the Liberty Bell to Independence Hall. Zoning variances for the property were contended with. And the site itself, which is narrow in width, had to support a carefully and delicately designed building. Most developers, Baker said, could not make the numbers work at such a small site.

"I've been identified with this site for many years — and did many plans for developers from New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and they could never make it work," said Baker, who designed 500 Walnut with his team at Cecil Baker + Partners. "And they walked away from this, a little bit poorer and with bruised egos."

"And then along came Tom, and when Tom saw this site, he said, 'Wow,' " Baker continued. "And he so got it, because Tom is a Philadelphian."

WSP USA, the New York-based structural engineer company that worked on the One World Trade Center building in New York City, also assisted with the 500 Walnut project to make its sleek design work. Ultimately, Scannapieco said Tuesday, the building was designed to be just 50 feet wide.

Today, the result of the collaboration is 35 condos, which currently, Scannapieco said, are more than two-thirds under agreement — the most he has ever had claimed at the time of a grand opening. The least-expensive unit, measuring 1,800 square feet, is under agreement for $1.8 million. The most expensive unit, the 8,900-square-foot penthouse — once rumored to be purchased by Beyoncé and Jay-Z (it's not) — is under agreement for $17.85 million. Four of the sales, Scannapieco said, have been settled.

Still, there is a lot of work ahead before the building is finished. As of Tuesday, only the lobby, the exteriors of the building, and the amenity floor — which includes a full-size lap pool, a conference room, and a billiards room — have been completed. A fully automated, underground parking system that can park and retrieve vehicles without a valet is also ready for resident use. So is a fourth-floor terrace, with clear views of Independence Hall.

However, most of the units inside are still only raw space, awaiting buyers' architects who will design the units' layouts before residents move in.

In the meantime, Scannapieco is already trying to work out details on his next project: a residential tower at the Nelson building in the heart of Society Hill. Scannapieco put the building, located at 222-230 Walnut St. under agreement earlier this year. Currently, he said, he is working to purchase the air rights of at least one of his adjacent neighbors at the site to achieve more density. If he succeeds, Scannapieco said he is planning between 30 and 50 ultra-luxury units in a high-rise on the Society Hill site, all of which will be priced similarly to 500 Walnut.

Scannapieco said he plans to work with Baker again on the next project.