We confess, we never really paid attention to the home at the southeast corner of 3rd & Walnut. Even though this corner is in historic Society Hill and sits mere blocks from Independence Hall, the home at this address was somehow only built in 1999 on a property that had been used as a parking lot since the 1950s. Before then, a rather handsome building stood here, once housing the offices of the Delaware Insurance Company. Calling this building rather handsome is a bit of an understatement- actually, it was pretty awesome and it’s truly unfortunate that it got torn down during the Eisenhower administration.
A residential use at this corner is not altogether strange, given that there are homes across the street and running down 3rd Street. Still, it’s quite odd that a single home would occupy such a large lot, covering almost 9,000 sqft of incredibly prime real estate. So let’s agree that a single family home isn’t the highest and best use for this property. Now stirring up controversy is a debate over exactly what would be the highest and best use for the property.
The owner of the property is looking to demolish his mansion and replace it with a hotel. Over the summer, he came to the Historical Commission with a plan to build a 15-story hotel at the site, with retail on the first floor. Though we’re pretty sure this project would be permitted as a matter of right, the property (not the newish home) is still designated historic and therefore a new project requires approval from Historic.
The first iteration of the project ran into a masonry wall with intricate detailing, so to speak, and the owner of the property pivoted to a whittled down version of the project, proposing an 8-story hotel instead. As was the case with the previous iteration, Ambit Architecture did the design work. The revised application came through earlier this month and the Architectural Committee will review it next week. Already, there has been some public commentary on the new proposal, with a few people writing letters of support and more writing letters in opposition. Most of the opposition seems to relate to the height of the building, suggesting that an 8-story building somehow doesn’t fit into the fabric of the historic area. We think that’s a strange perspective, given the taller buildings on the next block of Walnut Street and the US Customs House around the corner, which would dwarf the 15-story iteration, let alone the 8-story plan.
Limiting the height to 65′ as some commenters have proposed would seem like a real waste of a prominent corner which is crying out for a more inspired use. For the residents of the Society Hill Towers to suggest that a taller building would have an adverse impact on their property rings hollow to us, as does the argument from the US Department of the Interior that a taller building would be “incompatible with the character of Independence National Historical Park.” To us, this feels like NIMBYism using the Historical Commission as a way to get in the way of what seems like reasonable and appropriate development. Here’s to hoping that something resembling the latest proposal gets built here and that the project isn’t reduced in size again to satisfy a what we see as a highly subjective standard.