Inquirer Editorial: Toll Bros. taking to new heights its disrespect for Jewelers Row

The 700 block of Sansom Street — otherwise known as Jewelers Row — would be home to a 29-story condo tower under a proposal by Toll Bros.

It’s unlikely that Mayor Kenney had in mind what Toll Bros. now plans to do when he asked the condominium developers “to go above and beyond what the law requires” in preserving iconic Jewelers Row.

Toll Bros. representatives have given “their word that they are committed to maintaining Jewelers Row as a historic, cultural gem for future generations of Philadelphians to enjoy,” the mayor said in October. Those pronouncements followed months of public shock and outrage at the developer's plans to erect a 16-story condo tower on Sansom Street.

Now, Toll Bros. is really looking “to go above and beyond” by nearly doubling the height of the tower, to 29 stories. That’s in a neighborhood of eclectic four- and five-story brick buildings that make up part of the country’s oldest diamond district.

The 16-story tower was widely criticized for being totally out of scale with the neighborhood. The Inquirer Editorial Board said it would “stick out like a sore thumb.” Extending it to 29 stories will turn it into a middle finger.

Toll Bros. holds all the cards. The revised plan, which would increase the number of condos to 109, “is permitted within the current zoning for the site, as well as it being in character for other developments within the Washington Square area,” Toll Bros. spokesman Tim Spreitzer said Monday in an email.

Instead of being preserved as one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods, attracting shoppers and tourists from throughout the area and around the world, Jewelers Row is zoned for skyscrapers. That’s because the city and its Historical Commission dropped the ball by failing to designate it as a historic district. Groups including the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia have sought to block the project — or at least to salvage as much of the five affected buildings as possible — but the prospects are bleak.

That leaves the fate of Jewelers Row as we know it in the hands and goodwill of Toll Bros. Since the developer is based in Horsham — not Hong Kong — its management should appreciate the neighborhood’s appeal and significance.

“The question is, ‘Will Toll Bros. respond to the mayor’s request to preserve the facades or not?’ ” Preservation Alliance executive director Paul Steinke told the Editorial Board. “The concern about the [taller] tower is whether there are threats to other historic buildings on the Row.”

The developer has not released a design for the tower or five street-level shops, but the suspicion is that the historic facades will be replaced with fake fronts and fake history — adding insult to injury.

Then again, some new residents of the luxury condos will be able to gaze at real history with their views of Independence Hall. That’s on top of paying virtually no property taxes for a decade, compliments of city tax abatements.

The mayor can implore Toll Bros. all he wants, but Jewelers Row and most of the city’s other historical and architectural gems will remain at risk until he and the Historical Commission treat them with the respect they deserve. Nearly doubling the commission’s budget, as a City Council bill would do, isn’t nearly enough.

The country’s only World Heritage City needs an inventory of its historic buildings and a strategy for designations. Without a preservation master plan, Philadelphia’s jewels will continue to disappear.

- Inquirer Editorial Board

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