Apartment Building Coming to Jewelers Row?

The Inquirer reported yesterday that Toll Brothers has a plan in place to demolish 702-710 Sansom St., five buildings on Jewelers Row, and replace them with a new 16 story building with 80 apartments and retail on the first floor. Regular readers of this blog know that we're very supportive of development, sometimes to a fault. And yet we find ourselves struggling to embrace this project.

700 block of Sansom

700 to 704 Sansom St. (note that 700 Sansom St. would not be included in the project)

706-710 Sansom St.

It would be a shame to see any of these buildings demolished, as each one has numerous unique architectural features. 704 Sansom St. is a particularly awesome building in our estimation, but we can see how someone could pick any of the others as a favorite as well. In a vacuum, the loss of any of these buildings would indeed be unfortunate but wouldn't spur the Preservation Alliance to craft a petition in protest as they have in this case. The fact that these buildings are located on Jewelers Row, the oldest diamond district in the country, means that they are small parts of a larger whole. And many people believe that context on the block should remain sacred.

Jewelers Row

They may have a point. Jewelers Row has a certain charm, a clear history, and a definite scale. All would certainly be impacted by the construction of a tall new building. Worse, it could be a sign of things to come; if Toll Brothers has success with this project, other developers could be inspired to do the same thing elsewhere on the block. With business tougher than ever thanks to competition from the internet, we can't say we'd blame any property owner on this block for considering a massive buyout for their property which sits half a block from Washington Square.

After giving it some thought, we can say that we'd rather not see this project built at this location. But before we close the book on it, we must consider one more aspect. The properties are not designated historic and are zoned CMX-5, which means that the demolition and new construction are all permitted as a matter of right. We're big believers in property rights, and while we may not like the project, Toll Brothers is totally within their rights to pursue it. With that in mind, we wouldn't be so comfortable with the City or a court throwing up any barriers against the project. On the one hand we'd rather see Jewelers Row stay the way it is, and on the other hand a post facto preservation effort would feel like a violation of the developer's property rights. So now what?

Perhaps the compromise could be for the City to hold its nose and allow for the construction of this project, but concurrently designate the rest of Jewelers Row as a historic corridor to prevent copycat development. This is not a perfect plan, as it wouldn't save the buildings pictured above. But it would ensure that the rest of Jewelers Row be preserved in the future, maintaining the character of the corridor as much as possible for future generations of people that don't want to buy an engagement ring on the internet. What do you think?