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Saffron: Development threatens Jewelers Row history, heritage

Reuven Cohen and John Khodanian were relaxing around a card table they had set up on the Jewelers Row sidewalk, nibbling on watermelon, kibitzing about the old days, and sharing an only-in-America moment.

On Jewelers Row, (from left) jewelry designer Jean Huffenus and merchants John Khodandian and Reuven Cohen share a lunch on the sidewalk in front of their Sansom Street shops.
On Jewelers Row, (from left) jewelry designer Jean Huffenus and merchants John Khodandian and Reuven Cohen share a lunch on the sidewalk in front of their Sansom Street shops.Read moreInga Saffron.

Reuven Cohen and John Khodanian were relaxing around a card table they had set up on the Jewelers Row sidewalk, nibbling on watermelon, kibitzing about the old days, and sharing an only-in-America moment. In 1967, Cohen, born on a farm in Israel, and Khodanian, an ethnic Armenian by way of Syria, fought on opposite sides of the Six Day War. Today, they own shops a few doors apart, and have become the de facto mayors of the block.

"Have some watermelon," Cohen called out to Jean Huffenus, a transplanted Frenchman who designs fine jewelry for several shops on Sansom Street. Proffering a chunk of fruit on the point of a knife blade, he upped the offer: "How about a glass of wine?"

After 30-plus years on Jewelers Row, Cohen, 70, and Khodanian, 67, are known to every designer, caster, engraver, polisher and gem merchant packed into the eclectic jumble of buildings between Seventh and Eighth Streets. Theirs is an interconnected world where everyone does business with everyone else, and million-dollar deals are confirmed with a handshake.

As Toll Bros. moves ahead with plans to demolish five properties at the eastern end of Sansom Street - three from the 19th century - it will be more than just buildings that will be lost. Jewelers Row is an ecosystem, as much as anything in nature. Cohen and Khodanian aren't being forced out. But once Toll inserts a 16-story luxury condo tower into the mix, the intricate relationships between merchants, craftspeople, and customers will be stressed as never before.

Founded in 1851, Jewelers Row is the oldest diamond district in America. That alone makes it a national treasure. Yet it has been undervalued by one city administration after another, including the current Kenney administration, which pledged to make historic preservation a priority again in Philadelphia.

While not as strong as it was in the days before internet shopping, Jewelers Row is still a major force in the industry, supplying stores throughout the region and catering to streams of retail customers. Consumers, it seems, still like to eyeball their gold and diamonds before they hand over their money. Just a block west of Independence Hall, the redbrick street is also a tourist magnet.

"Every horse carriage, every double-decker bus slows down to brag about this block," said Huffenus, who works out of an upper-floor studio at 704 Sansom, one of the five destined for destruction.

Few think of it this way, but Jewelers Row also happens to be an industrial hub, a rare enclave in the heart of the city where high-value products are still manufactured. When I wrote about this unique makers zone last year, Michael Cooper, then head of the city's office of manufacturing, estimated that nearly a thousand people work in the district, which spills down Eighth Street and over to Chestnut.

At least a hundred are employed in the five threatened buildings, Hy Goldberg, head of the merchants association, told me this week. Are we really ready to sacrifice those jobs for 80 condo units - ones that will pay virtually no property taxes for a decade?

Toll hasn't released a tower design, or even hired an architect, but Vice President Brian Emmons told me the company is committed to replicating the street's retail rhythms. Toll's plan calls for five shops arrayed along 90 feet of frontage. The tower will be set back 15 feet from the sidewalk, an arrangement similar to the one used at Ten Rittenhouse. Toll was clearly drawn to the Jewelers Row site because the tower will have fabulous views of Washington Square once it rises above the adjacent townhouses on Walnut Street.

In any other context, such urbanist touches might be applauded. But what's happening on Sansom Street is classic gentrification, the kind that drives out distinctive, homegrown business and tears apart long-standing community bonds.

Even if Toll makes good on its promise to include retail on Jewelers Row, it's hard to believe that brand-new shops will rent at affordable prices. All the craftspeople on the upper floors will have to find new space, either on Jewelers Row or elsewhere. As it is, many building owners are increasingly converting their upper floors to apartments because "people get more rent from residential than workshops," according to Goldberg, who supports Toll's project.

It's worth noting that Toll's track record on retail has not been good. Its new developments at Headhouse Square and 24th and South both lack retail space despite being located in the middle of commercial corridors.

Some in the development community have dismissed the historic value of the five buildings because they are a mishmash of styles and eras, and their storefronts have been modified over the years. It's true that the buildings have changed a lot since William Sansom built what is considered Philadelphia's first rowhouse development in 1799. But it's the visual cacophony that makes the block so wonderful. The architecture of Jewelers Row gains its power as an ensemble, one that is largely intact. No one ever expected such perfectly good, occupied buildings would be demolition targets when the 10-year property tax abatement was instituted in 2000.

What may be most shocking about this case is that it revealed that only three addresses on the landmark block are protected on the historic register. The Historical Commission has been moribund for so long that no Jewelers Row historic district was ever established. Toll Bros. needs no variances or approvals, other than a courtesy visit to the Design Review Board, to construct its tower.

The absence of a historic district means all the non-designated buildings are up for grabs. Since Sansom Street has the most generous zoning classification - CMX-5 - it is incredibly attractive to developers.

The same holds true for the rest of the neighborhood. Not only can Jewelers Row be wiped out, so can a trove of 19th- and 20th-century commercial buildings located east of Broad Street, between Market and Walnut.

With the construction of the East Market complex and the new Collins apartments on Chestnut Street, Center City's long-neglected east side is suddenly hot. "Who knows how many developers are assembling parcels for demolition right now?" noted the Preservation Alliance's Paul Steinke, whose organization has been fighting to save the five buildings.

Even if it is impossible to stop the Toll Bros. project, Jewelers Row should be a wake-up call to the Kenney administration. Without an immediate preservation push, coupled with strategic re-zonings to preserve low-rise pockets, the eclectic commercial streets that give Center City its identity will be obliterated.

Imagine a day when carriage drivers on Sansom Street tell their passengers, "This is where Jewelers Row used to be."