At Friday’s Historical Commission Meeting two important, and unusual hardship cases in West Philadelphia dominated the nearly eight-hour session. Penn was granted its request to demolish a property it owns at 40th and Pine, while the Episcopal Cathedral at 38th and Chestnut will have to wait for a future hearing for its hardship outcome.
The University of Pennsylvania received permission to demolish a historic, but badly altered, Italianate mansion at the corner of 40th and Pine, with a vote of six to three (with one abstention).
Penn has attempted to find a new use for the building since 2003. The University’s latest market-driven attempt resulted in a proposal for a seven-story residential building to be constructed alongside a restored mansion. The Historical Commission previously approved that plan at its meeting in October 2011, as PlanPhilly reported, but neighbors balked and called for a lower-scale building.
Penn’s subsequent analysis found that alternative scenarios to restore the mansion and construct a new building with fewer than 7 stories were not financially feasible. That determination is in large part, due to the target rental market for the units, as well as the cost of construction and rehabilitation.
At Friday’s meeting a coalition of Spruce Hill neighbors and preservation advocates testified in opposition to Penn’s hardship claim, alleging that Penn did not try to sell the property, explore enough leasing options, and that the developers expect too great a return on their investment.
As Eyes on the Street reported Thursday, Penn’s case for hardship relies on the neighborhood’s desire for a lower scale building, not because a seven-story building is impracticable. The case then relies on the presumption that the University would not be able obtain the necessary zoning variances to build a building at seven stories, therefore creating a hardship.
Commissioner John Mattioni put forward a motion to deny the hardship, which was defeated. Sara Merriman then motioned to accept the hardship, which was approved 6-3 with one abstention. Penn will need to get its zoning permits and finalize project financing before demolition commences.
The hardship finding will allow Penn to raze the site at 40th and Pine, and they are proposing a new five-story residential building for the site. The Commission’s Architectural Committee approved this design in concept in late April, and at Friday’s hearing architect Sam Olshin presented Atkins Olshin Schade’s designs for the development. Neighbors again expressed disappointment with the conceptual design’s scale, but members of the Historical Committee found the design to be "compatible" with the neighborhood.
The full Commission approved the five-story proposal in concept by a vote of 8-1 (with one abstention.)
Paul Boni, attorney for a group of Spruce Hill and Woodland Terrace neighbors, said that his clients plan to challenge the Commission’s hardship findings. The next battleground for this property will be at neighborhood zoning meetings and a Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing.