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Mansion to be demolished on 40th and Pine Credit: Akiff Premjee , Akiff Premjee

The large, white Italianate mansion that sits on 40th and Pine streets may not be around much longer.

Penn plans to demolish the dilapidated building, which is deserted with the exception of some parked cars and a few plants. The mansion was constructed in the 1850s and was designated a historic site in 1973 by the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

Since its 2003 purchase of the building, the University has struggled to find a use for it. In 2007, developers suggested an 11-story extended stay hotel, which would require the home’s demolition — a plan neighborhood residents rejected.

In December of 2008, the building plan was revised to have only 10 stories and incorporate the home into the design after renovations. While the Historical Commission approved of the plan, the zoning committee did not review it and the property was never developed on the 40th and Pine site. These plans eventually resulted in the building of Hilton Homewood Suites on 41st and Walnut streets.

More recently, Penn and developers from Equinox Management and Construction of Philadelphia designed plans for a seven-story apartment building on the deserted property. The plan was approved by the Historical Commission in October 2011, but neighborhood residents opposed it, saying the building was too large.

In April, Penn’s revised plan for a five-story building intended for graduate housing was approved.

This revised plan, however, presents some issues, including the demolition of a historic site. In order to construct a building no more than five stories tall — a condition neighbors insist upon — the university and property developers say the mansion must be demolished.

Many residents agree with this stance. According to the Spruce Hill Community Association’s minutes from February, “the zoning committee unanimously agrees that demolition of the mansion currently on the property is the only way to make redevelopment for graduate housing that will be neighborhood-friendly.”

The University has obtained approval from the Historical Commission to demolish the building based on a hardship claim. According to Executive Director Jonathan Farnham, the commission “cannot approve a demolition of an historic building unless the owner proves that there is no reasonable adaptive reuse for the building.” Because the building at 400 S. 40th St. met this condition, the demolition was approved, Farnham wrote in an email.

However, some felt the demolition was not justified. “We did not think that the application demonstrated that there was a financial hardship that required demolition because the University and developers had previously shown that they could restore the historic house by building a seven-story apartment building on the same site,” said John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

The University contended that due to the cost of renovations, erecting a building fewer than seven stories that retained the mansion would be very expensive. “At seven stories, the mansion could be preserved,” Executive Director of Real Estate Ed Datz said. “If you were to restore it, it would be three- to four-million dollars to invest in that, which is why you need seven stories to get ahead and afford the cost of bringing the historic building back.”

The University’s plans currently do not adhere to certain building height restrictions in the Philadelphia zoning code designation for the site. According to Datz, Penn is awaiting approval for a variance, which would allow them to construct the five-story building on the property.

Datz said that although designs have been discussed, no specific plan has been chosen. “This has been a collaborative process as we deal with the community and our own design review process,” he said. “We’ve taken into consideration some recommendations … but it’s not in its final form and fashion.”

Barry Grossbach, chair of SHCA, spoke of the difficulties of such collaborative efforts. “When there was a proposal for a hotel that could’ve had commercial space, there were objections to that. Now people are objecting to residential space,” Grossbach said. “Will there ever be total agreement on anything that goes up there? Probably not, but we will have to work our way through and see what’s possible.”

Rising College senior and 34th Street staff member Zeke Sexauer is glad the site is being developed, but has a caveat for the developers. “I only hope that whatever the University decides to build here isn’t architecturally jarring or cheap, and instead preserves the aesthetic quality of the rest of the block,” he said. “This isn’t the place for a miniature version of the Radian or the Hub.”

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