The residential and retail development, 38Chestnut, will be a 25-story tower with 276 units, storefronts on the ground floor and underground parking. The Episcopal Cathedral Center, another part of the development, will include a three-story office building and a new community center space.
The project will also bring an early-learning child-care center and other improvements to the already standing cathedral on 38th Street near Chestnut.
"This is one of those rare projects where it's a win on every single front," said Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for economic development, during the groundbreaking ceremony.
City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said she looks forward to the opportunities the development will provide.
The road to Thursday's ceremony was not without bumps, however: In order to clear the way for the project, something had to go - specifically the cathedral's rectory and parish, which had been on the National Register of Historic Places. The church and the Radnor Group supported the demolition, but the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia opposed it.
The city Historical Commission decided in favor of demolition after imposing conditions on the partners. Both parties agreed to ensure that a portion of development profits went toward repair and renovation of the historic bell tower.
David Yeager, president of the Radnor Property Group, said renovation work will begin on the tower in the spring.
The historic preservationists appealed the decision, but in March dropped the matter.
Yeager said the apartments, expected to open in summer 2015, are at the "gateway to Penn's campus" and will address "pent-up demand" in the area. The one- and two-bedroom units will boast stainless steel appliances and granite counters, he said. One floor will have a fitness center, and there will be a rooftop deck.
"West Philadelphia is growing tremendously," said Greenberger, who lived in the area from 1981 to 1998. "But this has so much more potential, and that potential is finally getting realized as these institutions grow and as people recognize the great ideal of living in West Philadelphia."
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