Thursday, October 6, 2016

Pettifoggery on Jeweler's Row

In the battle for Jeweler's Row, the gloves were off between Toll Brothers and the city's Preservation Alliance. Philadelphia has a storied history of shouting matches in and out of the courtroom with a few fistfights between council members taking place within its own chambers. 

The debate over what our city is and should be is deeply rooted going all the way back to the Founding Fathers bickering over the same for our new nation. Our skyline has risen, fashion has gotten a bit more practical, and the streets probably smell a little better. But when it comes to being an opinionated bunch, we're still Philadelphians at our core, apparent when one Toll Brothers' lawyer, Carl Primavera, uttered the words "pettifoggery" and "poppycock."

I honestly wish I had more free time to attend these sorts of meetings because they sound like a hoot. Then again, I enjoy the image in my head, one of a man who sounds like a dish at Olive Garden in Colonial garb, pointing an ivory handled cane at the Preservation Alliance and shouting words that send most reasonable people to But perhaps Primavera was making a point by using antiqued words to describe the acts of an antiquated organization. In this instance, the Preservation Alliance's actions were textbook obstructionist nonsense. 

Like every Philadelphian interested in salvaging our city's history, I too would like Jeweler's Row to live on. There's just one problem: Jeweler's Row - despite the t-shirts - isn't historic, at least it wasn't last week.

When Toll Brothers proposed a high-rise at the corner of 7th and Sansom, there was nothing stopping them. While activists managed to appeal the project, in the end the law as it is intended to work, won. Two hearings couldn't prove that these unprotected properties were protected because those charged with protecting our history failed to do so. At this point, no campaigning, signatures, or screaming will retroactively deem these buildings historic. 

It's easy to paint Toll Brothers the cold Scrooge McDuck paving over the city to create some facsimile of what once was there because they're known for naming their McMansion communities for the historic farms that they raze. Whether they've done anything wrong or immoral is irrelevant, they've done nothing unethical or illegal. They're developers, and developers are in the business of making money. Yet somehow, preservationists in one of the nation's most historic cities, can't grasp that. 

To read quotes and comments from the hearings, it's as if the historical community thinks the collective will of every nerd in the tristate area can save every one of our historic landmarks. But that's not how it works. To win your battles you don't just have to know who you're up against, you have to know how they operate and why. Toll Brothers - and every developer - has a clear agenda and business plan. Where are the Alliance's?

If any property should have served as a lesson, it should have been the Boyd Theater. It was a designated landmark, and through a technicality, only the facade was salvaged. Legally, that was a preservation victory because we managed to save what was legally protected. But to those who love history, it was a loss because we lost what was historic about the Boyd, it's auditorium. 

We should have learned our lesson: We can win battles in favor of historic preservation, but we need to make sure all unprotected landmarks are protected, inside and out when necessary. Jeweler's Row is just another unfortunate lesson, and whether it will be heeded remains to be seen. Will we fight to protect what's left of Jeweler's Row? Will we fight for a district? And will preservationists get out in front of other potential losses before this begins to unfold all over again?

With all the energy, resources, and money spent on the corner of 7th and Sansom, is Robinson's Department Store protected? Is Spring Garden's Church of the Assumption still under the wrecking ball? Are there any other 'Jeweler's Rows' out there that might make trendy residences for New Philadelphians? Because I can assure you those buildings and neighborhoods are already on the developers' radars, and firms like Toll Brothers are just waiting for their market research to tell them the time is right. 

Groups like the Preservation Alliance need to be doing their own market research, their own due diligence. If preservationists continue to fight for properties immediately after they've become profitable, at the eleventh hour, preservationists will always be playing defense. And considering how unprofitable preservation is, it will always be an uphill and rarely won fight.