Episcopal Cathedral gets OK to raze historic buildings, erect apartment high-rise

Episcopal Cathedral of Phila. wants to tear down two historic buildings it owns. Preservationists fear a dramatic shift in public policy.
Episcopal Cathedral of Phila. wants to tear down two historic buildings it owns. Preservationists fear a dramatic shift in public policy. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff)
Posted: June 10, 2012

The Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral received approval Friday to demolish two historic buildings in the 3700 block of Chestnut Street, clearing the way for construction of a 25-story apartment tower.

At a lengthy hearing of the city Historical Commission, the cathedral and its private development partner agreed to conditions imposed by the commission that seek to insure that a portion of development profits flow into repair and renovation of the historic cathedral's bell tower.

"We are committed to preserving the church itself," the Rev. Judith Sullivan, cathedral dean, told the commission. "We are all about preservation."

The proposal before the commission was unusual in that the cathedral and its partner, the Radnor Property Group, argued that the demolition is "in the public interest."

By choosing to proceed in this fashion, they compelled the commission to weigh the relative value of historically designated properties and to consider the possibility that a commercial development, built on the ground of demolished historic properties, is good for preservation.

"We're placing a value judgment in saying that the cathedral is more important," said John Mattioni, a commission member.

The cathedral plans to demolish its own parish house and rectory — known together as the parish house — placed on the National Register of Historic Places and on the Philadelphia registry in 1981, to construct the apartment tower plus office and retail space.

Well-known church architect Charles M. Burns completely designed one of the three-story brownstone parish buildings in 1902 and redesigned the facade and additional features of the other to complement the cathedral.

At that time the cathedral, also designed by Burns, was known as the Church of the Savior; it was placed on the local registry in 1981 with the parish house and rectory.

At Friday's hearing, members of the historical commission grappled with the meaning of "public interest" and sought repeatedly to determine the amount of money the developer was willing to commit to cathedral restoration. The cathedral's proposal was based on the idea that the commercial development, built on church property, would provide revenues for restoration that the cathedral would not otherwise have. How much money, and how and when it would be used proved difficult for the commission to determine.

David Yeager, head of Radnor Property, declined to be pinned down on how much money would ultimately flow to the cathedral and when broad restoration and repair of the cathedral building might commence.

He gave his assurance that the "critical needs" of the cathedral bell tower would be addressed as soon as possible. But he would give no timetable for all restoration work, estimated to cost roughly $3.5 million.

At least some members of the commission were concerned that once demolition occurred, there would be no means to bring back the historic buildings if the development stalled or if restoration of the cathedral did not occur in a timely fashion.

Yeager said financing for the whole project would be in place at the onset. Construction could begin as early as the end of this year and last for 18 to 24 months.

Dominique Hawkins, chair of the commission's architecture committee, said details provided on plans for stabilization and restoration of the bell tower were not adequate. Given the historic nature of the property, any restoration and repair would require "extraordinarily rigorous review," she said.

Architectural historian David Brownlee, representing the Design Advocacy Group, asked the commission to hold off a decision on the cathedral until it could consider the meaning of "public interest."

Proposals that seek to demolish one historic property in order to fund maintenance and preservation of another would surge through the regulatory opening provided by approval of the cathedral's plan, he said.

"The tide is rising," Brownlee said, urging the commission to "narrow" the opening.

John Gallery, head of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, said construction of an apartment house that would likely be used by graduate students did not fit "the public interest."

Moreover, he said, there is "no tangible evidence that the profits from the development" will flow to the cathedral.

"You have nothing," he told the commission.

In the end, the commission voted to approve the demolition "in the public interest," requiring the cathedral and its developer to have all financing in place before any demolition occurs.

Restoration of the bell tower must commence before a building permit will be issued for the apartment building. An occupancy permit for the completed development will not be issued until the historical commission is assured that the bell tower restoration is complete.

At the same meeting, the commission briskly approved the concept for the 25-story building at the corner of Chestnut and 38th Streets. The commission's architecture committee had recommended denial of the concept. Neil Sklaroff, attorney representing the cathedral and Radnor Property, said his clients had "no flexibility" on size.

The commission approved the concept anyway.

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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