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Commission delays decision again on Jewelers Row historic designation

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They want to wait until legal issues surrounding the project clear up

The Philadelphia Historical Commission voted to delay making a decision on whether or not to designate three properties on Jewelers Row until legal issues regarding their potential demolition become clearer.

There were eight votes in favor of tabling the decision and three against the motion.

The decision is the latest step in an 6-months-long battle between local preservationists and developer Toll Brothers, whose plans to build a residential high rise on Samson street in place of five buildings on Jewelers Row were made public in August 2016.

Opposition against what was a 16-story tower at the time was almost immediate, with an online petition garnering more than 2,500 signatures against the development in three days. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia then moved to nominate three of the five buildings for historic designation to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Designating the buildings as historic would give the Historical Commission jurisdiction over the properties for any future developments. Any proposed changes to the exterior of the buildings to be reviewed and approved by the commission.

The nominations for 706-08 Sansom Street and 704 Sansom Street argue that they are historic sites because they have significant character, they are the work of a significant architect (Collins & Autenrieth), and they contribute to the historical heritage of Jewelers Row. The former was original the Publishing House of Henry C. Lea, Co. and the latter was the Electrotype Foundry.

The original nominations were considered at the November 19 commission meeting, but the committee voted to delay a decision for another 90 days. Within that timeframe, Toll Brothers released its proposed design for a taller, 29-story tower, revealing a brick facade on the Samson Street and a contemporary, glass facade facing Washington Square Park.

At Friday's meeting, opponents of the Toll Bros. development urged the commission to consider the nominations in front of them regardless of the zoning and L&I issues surrounding the project. “Your task is to decide whether or not these buildings meet historical standards,” said Paul Steinke, president of the Preservation Alliance and nominator of the three buildings. “You are not required to pay attention to the legal circus going on around this.”

“If you approve the nominations,” he continued, “you will send a signal that as a steward of historic Philadelphia, that Jewelers Row is important and that preserving the facades is important.”

Meanwhile, lawyer Carl Primavera testified to the commission that if they were to add the properties to the register, it would cause “millions of dollars” in damages to Toll Brothers and those involved with the project. He added that because the demolition permit has been approved, historic designation of the properties would be “eroding and undercutting the rule of law.”

“You can’t hold onto every brick and stick,” he added.

The motion to table a decision on historic designation of the properties continues to leave the 29-story condo tower in limbo. Currently, an appeal is pending with the L&I regarding the demolition permits. L&I also said earlier this week that they have requested more information from Toll Brothers and are waiting to take final action.

Following that decision, the design proposal will meet with the Civic Design Review, which is an advisory committee. Toll Bros. and SLCE Architects presented the proposal to the CDR earlier this week during an information-only meeting.