Jewelers’ Row: A storied past, a thriving present, an uncertain future

For well over 100 years, local artists, craftspeople, and entrepreneurs have inhabited the diamond district in Center City, Philadelphia. At the heart of this district is Jewelers’ Row on Sansom St. between 7th and 8th Sts. Hundreds of people make their living in the jewelry arts on this row, many having done so for decades after taking their businesses over from other artists. This is a legacy industry and is the oldest of its kind in the country. Toll Brothers, Inc., a development company based in Horsham, Pennsylvania, has proposed demolishing five of the buildings at the heart of Jewelers’ Row in order to build a 16-story, 80-unit luxury residential tower, which will displace more than 100 artisans and workers and could have a lasting negative impact on the legacy industry.

At its core, preservation is about continuity. Jewelers’ Row is special because of the continuity of use and industry that this street has fostered for over a century and a half. The row and the associated retail that spills out along the surrounding streets are an economically vibrant industry that is a continuation of related businesses that have thrived here since the mid-19th century. This longevity is remarkable and worth protecting.

Key Facts About Where Things Stand

Jewelers’ Row

The buildings slated for demolition (702-710 Sansom St.) are fully occupied by businesses and residences. It is estimated that 20 businesses operate in these buildings and that these businesses sustain 100 craft and retail jobs. This is an active street and currently contributes to Philadelphia’s economic health, both as the heart of the city’s diamond district and as a tourist attraction. Each carriage and duck boat that carries visitors down 7th St. past Sansom points out the row as a landmark in Philadelphia. As they do, visitors ride beneath signs created by the city advertising the historic nature and value of Jewelers’ Row. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia started a petition to protest the proposed demolition of the five buildings on the row. As of the posting of this blog, the petition has received nearly 6,000 signatures. This fact shows that many Philadelphians believe that Jewelers’ Row is a heritage resource in our city. Unfortunately, the buildings have not been given adequate preservation protection. While they are contributing structures in the East Center City Commercial Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places, this does not protect them from demolition but rather simply acknowledges their contribution to the national historical importance of the Center City commercial corridor. The more important designation for cases like this, a designation in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, has not been given. And only recently has the Preservation Alliance written nominations for 704-708 Sansom St. for the local register. Not only are these buildings lacking in this important preservation designation, the row is zoned CMX-5 (Center City Commercial and Residential Mixed-Use 5), which allows for the densest and most liberal types of development found in Philadelphia.

Toll Brothers Proposed Development

The Toll Brothers intend to take advantage of the zoning and lack of historic designation in this area by building a 16-story residential tower, despite the fact that the buildings on the row and neighboring streets are all 3 or 4 stories in height. The company has not disclosed whether they intend to create condos or apartments in this tower, but have said that it will contain 80 units with commercial on the ground floor. They filed for zoning permits for 702-710 Sansom Street and 128 S. 7th St., formerly another jewelers’ shop which is also included in the Toll Brothers’ plans for demolition. As yet, it is unclear which, if any, of the buildings are owned by the Toll Brothers. It is possible that at this point they have agreements with the owners to buy the properties once all of the appropriate permits needed to create the development have been approved by the city. The Toll Brothers will get a ten-year tax abatement for this construction project, which is part of the way Philadelphia incentivizes new development. The fact that tax abatements to rehab existing properties pales in comparison to the one given for new development perversely encourages the destruction of our city’s historic fabric and businesses and residents on Sansom St. are bewildered that the city would forego 10 years of taxes on these properties rather than keep the existing local tax revenue-generating businesses in place.

The Toll Brothers’ project will have to go through a Civic Design Review process by a community stakeholder group and an advisory design board appointed by the mayor, but they are not obligated to follow recommendations generated by this process. The Toll Brothers have not commented on whether businesses that currently occupy the buildings they intend to demolish will be able to inhabit the ground floor of their development once it’s complete. Reactions from business owners have been mixed, but many fear that the development will hurt their businesses, particularly those that will be displaced for the duration of the demolition and construction, and fear that the Toll Brothers’ will rent the new retail space in their development to non-jewelry related businesses.

This Blog

We have three primary objectives for starting this blog. First, we wanted a way to easily store and disseminate the news stories that are generated every week about Jewelers’ Row and the proposed demolitions. Second, along with the associated Facebook group, we wanted a way to organize stakeholders and to easily communicate the dates and times of community meetings as well as to organize a social media campaign. Most importantly, we wanted a place to record what Jewelers’ Row is now, before massive changes can occur. We invite stakeholders to contribute to this blog. We are going to be collecting oral histories from the people who live and work on the row, many of whom have been there for decades, some for generations. Follow the blog to stay up-to-date as we record this intangible heritage tied to one of Philadelphia’s legacy industries.

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