A new proposal for graduate student housing at 40th and Pine streets received an outpouring of support at a Spruce Hill Community Association meeting, as litigation challenging a previous plan continues in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.
Jonathan Weiss, president of Equinox Management and Construction, presented a plan to build a five-story apartment building surrounding the historic mansion currently on the property. The previous proposal — already approved by SHCA and the Philadelphia Historical Commission — requires the demolition of the mansion, whereas the new proposal does not.
“We are hoping we can build support for this approach and avoid a couple more years of litigation,” Weiss said. “So we wanted to come to Spruce Hill to solicit feedback on this approach, and to ask for support.”
After the Historical Commission approved the demolition plan in May 2012, the Woodland Terrace Homeowners Association appealed the decision to allow demolition of the mansion. The Zoning Board later upheld the decision to allow demolition.
Oral arguments in a separate case about zoning laws — known as “variances” — that determined the number of rental units permitted in the property were scheduled for Nov. 20. The Court postponed the hearing until January 2014.
The new proposal is designed to quell the concerns of those opposed to the demolition of the 150-year-old mansion, which was designated a historic site in 1973 by the Philadelphia Historical Commission.
“We’re facing the prospects that [litigation] could take tens of thousands of dollars and many years before there’s a resolution,” Weiss said. “We went back to the drawing board and had extensive conversations with the University of Pennsylvania and with all parties involved, and … we’ve come up with a way we can preserve the old part of the building.”
Some community members in attendance raised concerns over density and parking issues that new construction at the site could cause. The new proposal will lower the number of apartments from 122 to 99.
Several local residents stressed the importance of revitalizing the property as soon as possible. Penn has struggled to find a use for the current building since it purchased the property in 2003.
Other developments in the area are already in motion, such as a proposed renovation of SEPTA’s 40th street trolley station.
“I’m excited to see how, if and when the project goes through. It could revitalize the trolley portal itself,” said Lizzie Hessmiller, a member of the University City Historical Society’s Board of Governors. “That’s a space with a lot of potential that’s poorly used right now.”
Since Spruce Hill has already endorsed the previous plan, Spruce Hill Zoning Committee Chair Barry Grossbach said he was unsure what the Committee would be able to do in response to the new proposal. Nevertheless, he seemed excited by the prospect of a plan that satisfies a wide range of interested groups.
“There are a lot of immediate neighbors, and they don’t all agree,” Grossbach said. “That’s an issue we’ve always been dealing with …This is a site that has bedeviled the community and created friction and animosity, and that is unfortunate.”
He also suggested the developers discuss the proposal with the current litigants, who are challenging a proposal that will demolish the historic building and construct more units.
“Litigation always ends up ugly unless there’s a compromise, and this seems like a good compromise,” said Spruce Hill resident and attorney Eric Santoro. “Everyone’s losing something, but no one’s losing the core of what they want.”
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