Efforts by the city’s design review board to goad Toll Bros. into rethinking its plan for a condo tower on Center City’s Jewelers Row ended acrimoniously Tuesday, with the Horsham-based homebuilder’s representatives walking out of a hearing before the panel’s leader could finish delivering a final critique.
Nancy Rogo Trainer, chairwoman of the Philadelphia Civic Design Review board, was closing the panel’s consideration of the proposal with remarks characterizing the project as being out of scale with its surroundings when she noticed that Toll’s architect, lawyer, and other presenters were filing out of the conference room.
“Did they leave?” she asked, calling the departure a sign of “total disrespect for the committee.”
Carl Primavera, the company’s lawyer for the project, called the team back into the chamber but chastised Trainer for arriving late to the hearing herself.
The exchange came at the end of Toll’s second and final appearance before the review board with its proposal to level several properties on the storied Sansom Street gem-shopping district and replace them with a 24-story mirrored-glass condo building.
The review board is tasked with offering design commentary on Philadelphia’s biggest construction projects as a final stage of the city’s zoning approval process. It can require developers to present to the group a second time after hearing the panel’s thoughts on a project but can’t make them follow its suggestions.
When Toll first appeared before the board last month with its most recent rendition of the tower plan, members criticized the design for what it saw as an incongruous mix of brick on its lower stories with a glass tower above, while urging the company to find a way to preserve the facades of the site’s existing structures, according to coverage by the website PlanPhilly.
The tower presented by Toll on Tuesday replaced the former lower-story brick with more glass, which Jim Davidson of New York-based SLCE Architecture characterized as a response to the board’s feedback.
But some panelists were not satisfied with the changes, including Philadelphia architect Cecil Baker, who said the plans were not adequately refined for their central location in the jewelry district.
“For this project to work, it has to look like a jewel,” he said. “It has to look like a contemporary jewel in the neighborhood that is in the business of selling jewels.”
Toll first announced its plan in August 2016 to demolish the jewelry shop buildings between 702 and 710 Sansom St., along with a contiguous property at 128 S. Seventh St., and to replace them with a 16-story condo tower. The proposal drew swift condemnation from Philadelphia’s historic preservation community, which said the buildings were worthy of protection, as well as from some of the building’s tenants.
By July 2017, Toll had encountered difficulties making what had grown into the 29-story proposal fit within height limits imposed by area zoning rules and announced that the planned tower would lose a few stories to clear those hurdles.
Its revised proposal for a 24-story tower was approved in December by the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections, conditional on its presentation to the Civic Design Review board.
Toll’s only remaining hurdle to development would come from a legal challenge by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia to the project’s demolition permits.
A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge heard arguments in February surrounding the preservation group’s argument that the 128 S. Seventh St. property should have qualified for historic protections, amid other claims, and is expected to announce her ruling soon.
David Von Spreckelsen, the New York-based president of Toll’s urban-focused City Living division, has said Toll would not begin demolition work until the case is resolved.