By Paul Steinke, Executive Director, Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia
The current threat to Jewelers’ Row made me think of how other collections of like-minded retailers in Philadelphia are doing: Antique Row, Fabric Row, the Italian Market, and Reading Terminal Market.
In recent years both Antique Row and Fabric Row have shrunk as changing consumer tastes and shopping patterns undermined their business model. The Italian Market is still going strong, but is no longer predominately Italian-American as South Philly undergoes ever-changing demographics. Reading Terminal Market, where I served as general manager for 13 years, is also going strong, fueled by a heightened interest in local food and the revitalization of Center City.Which brings us to Jewelers’ Row, America’s oldest diamond district and the second-largest in the United States. A developer recently announced plans to tear down several occupied, viable buildings on the 700 block of Sansom Street, each filled with jewelers and craftspeople, in order to build a sixteen-story luxury condo tower. This announcement sparked immediate outrage on Jewelers’ Row and around the city. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia started an online petition against this proposal in mid-August that has so far amassed 6,000 signatures.
Nonetheless, a few voices have suggested that the project represents new investment in Jewelers’ Row and should be welcomed. The Preservation Alliance does not agree. Tearing out occupied, functioning buildings in a still-thriving specialty retail and manufacturing district risks upsetting – and quite possibly destroying – the delicate network of inter-related businesses that makes Jewelers’ Row so special. I know, because it almost happened to Reading Terminal Market.
The market became a citywide cause celebre in the early 1990s. That’s when the construction of the new Pennsylvania Convention Center threatened to destroy the market’s unique historic character and disrupt its close-knit community of locally-owned, independent food merchants. At first, the leadership of the convention center proposed shutting down the market for three years while they upgraded its infrastructure and rebuilt the market stalls. They promised that the merchants could move back in when the project was finished. Instead, merchants banded together and pushed back, and ended up stayed open during the renovation. Governing policies were put in place that have helped to preserve the Reading Terminal Market as the unique and popular destination that it is to this day. If the convention center’s original plan to close the market down for three years had been implemented, it’s questionable whether the market would have even survived.
The condo developer now preying on Jewelers’ Row is saying much the same thing. “Don’t worry, our new building will include storefronts for jewelers and they can move back in when it’s finished.” But like the Reading Terminal Market, Jewelers’ Row is a community of local, independent merchants that thrive on their close proximity to one another. Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron recently described Jewelers’ Row as an “ecosystem” where upwards of a thousand people are employed. If the condo developer gouges out five occupied, functional buildings and scatters their occupants elsewhere in the neighborhood or – worse – outside the city, the strength of the Jewelers’ Row ecosystem would be tested and could end up being irretrievably lost. What’s more, unless city officials take steps to protect the rest of Jewelers’ Row, how many more projects will seek to demolish and destroy Jewelers’ Row’s unique streetscape and heritage?
It’s said that “Diamonds Are Forever.” In fact, Jewelers’ Row has been around for nearly 150 years. It deserves the protections and support that would help to shepherd it into a successful future. Let’s join together, like the Reading Market merchants and customers did all those years ago, and tell the developer that this is not the right place for their project.