Locals fight Old City development

Locals fight Old City development

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Old City attorney Robert P. Tuerk has a deep appreciation of history — including LGBT history — and he views any new construction exceeding Old City’s 65-foot height limit as a hindrance to historic preservation.

Tuerk went to court to block the construction of a nine-story building at 226 Arch St. that would exceed Old City’s height limit by 43.5 feet.

But after a series of legal maneuverings, his legal challenge was declared moot last month by state Commonwealth Court.

The building hasn’t been erected yet, and Tuerk said he remains committed to protecting the height limit by preventing its construction.

“I’m considering all my legal options at my disposal,” he said.

Old City is Philadelphia’s oldest neighborhood, located in the eastern section. Its boundaries are Callowhill to Walnut streets from the Delaware River to Fifth.

The Liberty Bell is located in Old City, along with Independence Hall and the Betsy Ross House. In the mid-1960s, the country’s first LGBT-rights demonstrations also took place in Old City.

A bronze plaque at Fifth and Chestnut marks the site where the demonstrations occurred. Issued by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, it’s the only LGBT-specific historical marker of its kind in Pennsylvania.

“The first GLBT demonstrations happened in this neighborhood,” noted Tuerk. “I want to maintain a historic area in Old City that people want to come and see.”

In April 2006, City Council enacted the 65-foot height limit for new structures in Old City. Tuerk said the ordinance helps retain the area’s 18th-century feel by discouraging mid- and high-rise buildings.

But several developers want to exceed the height limit, including Michael Yaron, who wants to build the nine-story residence at 226 Arch. Yaron’s proposed building would replace a 75-vehicle parking lot currently on the site.

Yaron couldn’t be reached for comment.

Tuerk filed suit to block Yaron’s building in May 2008. But last month, Tuerk’s lawsuit was dismissed by state Commonwealth Court after Yaron’s attorneys withdrew his request to uphold a city Zoning Board of Adjustment approval for the project, granted in April 2008.

Instead, Yaron will rely on a December 2006 Zoning Board approval that he received from the city Zoning Board of Adjustment for a similar project, according to court papers.

Tuerk said he didn’t challenge the December 2006 approval because several neighborhood groups challenged it, including the Old City Civic Association.

However, those groups dropped their challenge in 2008, after the developer agreed to scale down his project from 23 stories to nine.

Embodied in the December 2006 approval for the 23-story building was approval for an alternate building of nine stories, which Tuerk didn’t challenge, according to Neil Sklaroff, an attorney for the developer.

Sklaroff said Yaron’s building will enhance the neighborhood.

“There were a number of experts who collaborated on the project, along with neighbors, the Old City Civic Association and other groups and agencies that added their input,” Sklaroff said. “We came up with a premier project which everyone can be proud of when it’s completed.”

Sklaroff declined to speculate on a time-frame for the building’s construction. He also didn’t know whether the dwelling units would be available as condos, apartments or co-ops.

The complex legal maneuvering has left Tuerk frustrated but undaunted.

“I feel left out of the process if the developer is going to rely upon prior approvals,” Tuerk said. “I’m continuing to monitor the situation.”

Tuerk also serves as a board member of the Gay and Lesbian Lawyers of Philadelphia, which hasn’t taken a position on the dispute.

Thomas A. Hess, another openly gay resident of Old City, also opposes Yaron’s project. He said parking is at a premium in Old City, and the existing lot serves a definite purpose.

“If you start building mid-rises all over Old City, that will definitely change the character of the neighborhood,” said Hess. “It’s a quality-of-life issue — preserving the architectural integrity of what’s already here.”

Randal A. Baron, an assistant historic preservation officer for the city’s Historical Commission, said the commission must review Yaron’s plans for the site before a building permit can be issued.

A date for that meeting has not yet been determined, he said.

Baron said a narrow street known as Little Boy’s Way runs along the eastern edge of the property, and the commission would be interested in knowing exactly how the street will be restored and preserved.

Little Boy’s Way is one of the oldest surviving streets in Philadelphia, having retained its original stone paving materials, Baron pointed out.

Joseph A. Schiavo, a member of the Old City Civic Association, said he supports construction of the nine-story building, noting it’s much better than Yaron’s earlier 23-story proposal.

Schiavo added the nine-story building will have commercial space on the first floor, which could be beneficial to the area. “A hardware store, drug store or food retailer — they would all be good for Old City,” he said.

Schiavo said a significant portion of the nine-story building fronting Arch Street will be lower than nine stories, and the building also will have a recessed courtyard along Little Boy’s Way.

“It’s more open space, and pushes the height of the building back off of that small street,” Schiavo said.

Tuerk said he plans to attend the meeting of the Historical Commission when Yaron’s project comes up for review, and remains optimistic that the height limit will be enforced.

“If you disregard the height limit, a certain quaintness is removed,” Tuerk said. “I think our system is weighed in favor of development. And it’s time to stop the overbuilding of Old City by drawing the line at 226 Arch St. Otherwise, you might want to rename our section of the city New City instead of Old City.”

Tim Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.

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