Historic designation lost for PREIT-owned Robinson building in Market East

The former Robinson department store building at 1020 Market St. behind billboards advertising the Fashion District Philadelphia project across the street.

A city government panel has ruled against designating the former Robinson department store at 1020 Market Street as a historically significant structure, opening the way for the modernist building’s unique wave-like facade of sweeping purple glass tile to be demolished.

The Philadelphia License and Inspections Review Board voted Wednesday to sustain an appeal of the designation filed by the building’s owners, mall-landlords Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust and Macerich. The two are in the process of redeveloping the Gallery at Market East shopping mall across the street into what’s being called Fashion District Philadelphia.

During more than three hours of testimony, Leonard Reuter argued for the city that the Philadelphia Historical Commission had been right when it voted in July 2016 to place the building on the city’s Register of Historic Properties in response to a nomination by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.

Historic preservationist Ben Leech said during the hearing that the building’s 1940s facade is a rare and important early example from the career of Victor Gruen, a prominent Viennese architect who fled the Nazis in 1938, and that it exemplifies the expressive retail architecture of its time.

PREIT and Macerich attorney Anthony Forte, however, contended that the commission had overestimated the building’s historic value, given subsequent alterations to the structure, and did not adequately consider whether its preservation would hold back economic development in the surrounding area, known as Market East.

Among those testifying on the appellants’ behalf were Peter Angelides, a principal of Philadelphia economic-development consultancy Econsult Solutions Inc., and Frank DiCicco, who appeared in his capacity as a lobbyist for PREIT. DiCicco also serves as chairman of the city’s zoning board and previously represented the Market East area as a city councilman.

The L&I Review Board, which is chaired by Philadelphia Zoo vice president Kenneth Woodson, voted 5-0 in the companies’ favor. None of its members remarked on their decision while casting their votes.

City spokesman Paul Chrystie said the Historical Commission would review the ruling before deciding on next steps. Preservation Alliance advocacy director Patrick Grossi said his group would discuss how to proceed. PREIT spokeswoman Heather Crowell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

PREIT chief executive Joseph Coradino has previously said his venture with Macerich was opposed to the historic designation because it limited their flexibility to combine the property with two others that they own on either side of the former department store building.

In most cases, developers seeking to alter structures listed on the city’s historic register must prove to the Historical Commission that preserving the properties would represent a “hardship” preventing their profitable use.

PREIT’s and Macerich’s appeal was originally filed in August 2016 in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, but the venture later came to an agreement with city officials to have the case heard by the L&I Review Board instead.