Condo proposal rejected where arson destroyed historic Old City building
Mazal Tov Development LLC submitted plans earlier this year to build a contemporary-style building at 239 Chestnut St. The historic structure that stood at that address was destroyed last year by arson.
The Philadelphia Historical Commission on Friday rejected a condo building proposed by a local developer to replace a historic Old City property that was destroyed by arson last year.
Mazal Tov Development LLC submitted plans this year to build a contemporary-style building at 239 Chestnut St. to house six condos and ground-floor commercial space. The property would have stood at five stories in the front — with industrial-style windows along the street — and was designed to be topped by a two-story overbuild toward the back.
Mazal Tov’s design came more than a year after a four-alarm fire tore through 239 Chestnut, displacing hundreds of neighboring residents and devastating local businesses. Last month, federal prosecutors charged two brothers with setting the fire. What was left of the building was demolished; a vacant lot sits on the row of properties that were designated by the Historical Commission in 1976.
Before the building was razed, the Department of Licenses and Inspections laser-scanned the facade and salvaged the cast-iron first floor, the Historical Commission’s staff wrote in documents associated with Mazal Tov’s plan, “so that the building could be reconstructed."
At Friday’s meeting, Gary Murray of Mazal Tov argued that it would be too expensive to reconstruct the facade, with the attorney representing him saying it would cost “close to the $1 million range to basically replicate what’s there.” Murray added that he tried to seek estimates from different contractors who would be capable of reconstructing the building with the salvaged materials.
“It’s not a cheap acquisition, the vacant lot there,” Murray told the commission. “And to get the numbers to line up, it was very, very necessary” to have a two-story overbuild.
Robert Thomas, chair of the commission, noted that the panel has approved a number of overbuilds so long as they are set back far enough from the street.
Mazal Tov has the property under agreement of sale, Murray’s architect, Kevin J. O’Neill of KJO Architecture, previously told The Inquirer. Murray said Friday that he had invested more than $250,000 in the project, which he said is “not refundable.”
“It wouldn’t be a copycat of the original building, but something that could definitely blend in,” Murray told the commission. “We felt people would in time appreciate" it.
The property is within the Old City Historic District and across from the Museum of the American Revolution.
The commission’s vote was unanimous, but Thomas advised Murray that he could argue his case before the commission’s Committee on Financial Hardship. That five-person committee hears applications that claim that historic properties cannot be reused.
Still, Thomas cautioned, Murray’s chances could be slim.
“I would say that given the importance of this building ... we’d [need] a very good reason why we would not restore this facade in this row," Thomas said.