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September 28, 2016

Zoning board delays consideration of appeals on Jewelers Row demo

Business Development
Jewelers row Sept 17 Hayden Mitman/PhillyVoice

The Jewelers Row structures that could be made part of the Philadelphia Historic Register: 704 and 706-08 Sansom Street, as seen last week. Windows in 704 Sansom Street host signs for an online petition protesting their proposed demolition.

Four zoning appeals filed to halt the planned demolition of several buildings along Jewelers Row were shelved Wednesday for a week.

The city's Zoning Board of Appeals postponed consideration of the appeals until Oct. 5.

The appeals all question how Toll Brothers Inc. — the Horsham-based development company planning to demolish five properties for a 16-story residential complex at 7th and Sansom streets — posted documents intended to inform neighbors of a demolition plan. 

The appeals — each one for a different building that would be razed — argue that Toll Brothers didn't provide proper notification of a zoning permit for lot consolidation and demolition of the properties. The city's zoning code requires such notification to be posted in a "conspicuous" location.

Hal Schirmer, an attorney for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, told the ZBA that Toll Brothers only posted notifications on the building at 128 S. 7th Street, a property around the corner from four Sansom Street buildings — 702, 704, 706-08, and 710 — that would also be demolished for the project. 

All parties agreed there was never notification posted on the affected properties. 

Schirmer also argued that the developer didn't make available enough information concerning the agreements of sale of the properties. 

"There is some information online, but it doesn't appear to be the complete information and documents," Schirmer told the ZBA board.

Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said the only information he could find for the sales of these properties were the first pages of the agreements of sale for each building. 

But according to Andrew Ross, an attorney for Philadelphia's Code Enforcement Unit, the Department of Licenses and Inspections has never revoked a permit for failure to post information. 

Ross also said the information available for the agreement of sale of these properties should have been adequate. 

Greg Pastore, a former zoning code commissioner and former member of the ZBA — he helped rewrite the city code unveiled in 2011 and was removed from the board by Mayor Jim Kenney earlier this year — testified on the behalf of those opposed to the development plan, saying posting of permits is important in order to keep informed local residents and the surrounding community. 

"The reason this is important was so that people could see what's going on," he said. 

Ronald Patterson, an attorney for Toll Brothers, asked Pastore if there was a penalty for not posting this information, Pastore could only respond that "there should be." 

In the end, the board decided to postpone its consideration to provide more time for those who submitted the appeals to testify before the board, and to allow the developer's attorneys time to provide a counter argument. 

Yet, even if these appeals are found to have merit by the ZBA, Steinke admitted after the meeting that it would likely not have any impact on the developer's overall plan. They'd likely just need to repost the paperwork on the Sansom Street buildings for another 30 days, he said.

Still, the appeals process was worthy, said Steinke, who claimed Toll Brothers Inc. was trying to keep the demolition plan as quiet as possible. 

"To me, this looked like they didn't want people to understand that they wanted to completely demolish [these buildings]," he said. 

Steinke said the best hope to preserve the historic structures along Jewelers Row would be an upcoming meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission's Committee on Historic Designation on Oct. 21. 

At that time, the committee will consider nominating the buildings at 704 and 706-08 Sansom St. to the city's historic register. 

Before construction can begin, the developer will also need to present a building plan to the Civic Design Review Committee and hear public input.