16-story condo could replace buildings on Philadelphia's Jewelers Row

A luxury home developer is planning to demolish buildings on Philadelphia's Jewelers Row, the nation's oldest diamond district, to make way for a 16-story condominium building that some jewelry store owners say was kept under wraps.

Jewelry store owners and preservationists are stunned and mad, saying no community input was sought. Developer Toll Brothers is vowing to respect the street's history and work with the neighborhood going forward, but not all are convinced the company's word is good as gold.

"As far as I'm concerned, they ruined my life," said Maryanne Ritter, who owns Maryanne S. Ritter Jewelers, situated in one of the five buildings slated for demolition.

Ritter isn't blaming Toll Brothers, however. She pins the blame squarely on the building owners who she contends agreed to sell without giving fair warning to businesses.

Two of the building owners said they couldn't comment. A telephone number for the third owner wasn't found.

Ritter started on the block as a 20-year-old working with jeweler Louis Neff, at a time when she says "no one took a woman jeweler seriously." After his death 13 years ago, Neff named her as the successor to his business founded in 1909. Now 66, Ritter said her business can't withstand relocating.

"Some things don't need to change to stay special, especially not a vibrant business district like this," she said.

Jewelers Row is a block-long business district dating from the 1800s in prime historic Philadelphia, a stone's throw from the Liberty Bell. It started off as place where skilled metal workers made engraving plates, back when government offices were in or around nearby Independence Hall, said George E. Thomas, a Philadelphia architectural historian. Those engravers spun off into jewelry making.

Today, the red-brick paved street is a bustling jumble of over 300 jewelers, engravers, watch vendors and diamond dealers. It also had its Hollywood close-up in the 2012 film "Silver Linings Playbook."

It is the oldest diamond district in the country, but it isn't historically protected as a whole.

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia has launched an online petition to show the city and Toll Brothers that the project is wrong for Jeweler's Row.

"Toll Brothers has a reputation as being insensitive to community concerns, doing things under cover of darkness and railroading their way through," said Paul Steinke, the alliance's executive director.

No public hearing or notification was required with the condo project because Toll Brothers' proposal didn't seek zoning changes, said Ajeenah Amir, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Kenney.

Ritter said she'd heard scuttlebutt on the street, and her lease recently became month-to-month, but she never was officially informed that she would need to find a new store ASAP.

Toll Brothers spokesman Michael Duff said he couldn't comment beyond a statement already issued. Toll Brothers' City Living division said in the statement they plan to engage the community throughout the development process.

"We are committed to delivering a residential building that is respectful of the history of Jewelers Row while rejuvenating it for the future," the statement said. "We intend, through contextual architectural design, for the existing cornice line of Sansom Street to remain intact while retaining retail space along the street level for jewelry stores to preserve the iconic Jewelers Row streetscape."

It turns out the city prematurely issued the project's new construction permit earlier this month, which could delay the plan by months and give all sides a chance to offer input. The plans must be reviewed first by committee. The city issued a conditional zoning permit last week and told Toll Brothers to complete the redesign review process. Part of that process involves meeting with the community, and Toll Brothers has 150 days to submit for the review.

Hy Goldberg, who owns Safian & Rudolph Jewelers across the street from the planned development, said he's trying to find space on the row where the displaced tenants can set up shop.

"I don't know how a 16-story building makes anything look better, but if they have the legal authority, there's nothing anybody can do," said Goldberg, who is also president of the Jewelers Row Association.

He said the community needs to work with Toll Brothers "to make the best compromise to maintain the integrity of this historic area."

Retail experts don't see this type of specialty district vanishing because of changes in shopping habits.

"Brides and grooms aren't sitting on the sofa and buying rings online. They do their research there, but then go out in person and purchase them," said Midge McCauley, president and founder of Downtown Works, a retail consulting firm for urban areas.

She said keeping jewelry stores on the street level of the new building would be wise.

"You won't find these artisans in a mall. The city can offer that to the world and the malls can't," McCauley said. "Cities have to offer something different and this is the perfect example: Jewelers Row is a destination."