A subsidiary of homebuilding giant Toll Bros. wants to replace a big chunk of Philadelphia's Jewelers Row with 16 stories of housing that could forever alter the long-standing enclave of diamond merchants, watch shops, and gold sellers.
Toll Washington Square was granted a zoning permit Wednesday for an 80-unit building with ground-floor commercial space near the southeast end of that block of Sansom Street, said Karen Guss, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections.
L&I inspectors should finish considering a separate application by the Toll subsidiary - needed so that it can clear the development site, which covers the five properties between 702 and 710 Sansom St. - by Sept. 1, Guss said.
The prospect of a residential tower among the generations-old family businesses inhabiting the street's 18th- and early 19th-century buildings has some worrying that an important part of Center City's historic character will be lost.
It comes amid a flurry of residential development in the area around Washington Square and Independence Hall, including the Curtis Building's conversion into condos and the 26-story 500 Walnut luxury condo building now under construction.
The row "is a vestige of another era: the architecture, the scale, the variety," said Harris Steinberg, who directs Drexel University's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. "It's something to treat carefully if we are to modify it."
Philadelphia's Jewelers Row is said to be the nation's oldest diamond district and the second-largest after New York's. The street, lit up for the holidays, is known beyond Philadelphia as the setting of a pivotal scene in the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook.
The row's roots date to the mid-1800s, when engravers and other artisans gathered along the street to serve nearby government offices, according to Harvard University professor George E. Thomas.
By the early 20th century, the street's craftspeople had largely turned their skills toward producing jewelry, said Thomas, who cochairs a Harvard design-school program on history and culture.
Today, about 300 people work on Jewelers Row, according to the Jewelers Row Business Association. Many of those workers are designers, casters, and stone-setters on the floors above the street's storefronts, according to Hy Goldberg, the association's head and the owner of the Safian & Rudolph jewelry store.
As many as 20 businesses operate just in the upper stories of the five three-story buildings that Toll is eying for demolition, Goldberg estimated. Those buildings' first floors accommodate retailers including Maryanne Ritter Jewelers and Ron Panepinto Jewelers.
Still, Goldberg said he likes the idea of the residential tower, because it would further enliven the street - as long as the ground-floor retail is true to the row's roots.
"I would very much hate to have a CVS or something move in there," said Goldberg, whose family has been on the street for three generations. "That just destroys the character of the street."
Michael Duff, marketing director for Toll's City Living urban-development arm, declined to comment on whether any allowances are being made for existing merchants to return or to discuss any other details of the company's plans. He also declined to say whether the units would be apartments or condos.
Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, speculated that the location was selected to offer views of Washington Square just over Walnut Street to the south. Much of that part of Walnut Street - unlike Jewelers Row - is historically protected, which blocks development directly across from the square, he said.
Also under historic protection is 700 Sansom St., which now has a coffee shop on its ground floor. But demolition of 702-710 Sansom St. can begin any time after Aug. 26 - 21 days after the demolition permit application was filed - if that permit is granted, Guss said. A contiguous property at 128 S. Seventh St. is also part of the demolition plans.
"I think they're playing with fire here," the Preservation Alliance's Steinke said of Horsham-based Toll. "It's a suburban developer coming in and gouging five properties on one of our most iconic streets."
The Lindy Institute's Steinberg, who served on Philadelphia's Historic Commission from 2001 to 2006, said that he generally applauds new development and that more housing will add to the area's vibrancy.
But Jewelers Row, he said, "is a particularly important street in the commercial life of the city" that warrants special care."