It might not have seemed like the beginning of a war — taking place, as it did, in a drab meeting room in the municipal building at 1515 Arch St. — but the University of the Arts’ legal team showed it was ready for battle.
On April 13, about 30 people were in attendance for the meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which had gathered to consider (among other items on its agenda) whether 401 S. Broad St. — colloquially known as the Gershman Y, for its most prominent outside tenant — should be given historic designation.
The building was nominated for designation by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia in July 2016, and in December 2016, the Historical Commission’s architectural designation committee unanimously approved it. It was scheduled to go to a final Historical Commission review in January, but the owner of the building, University of the Arts, asked for a 90-day continuance — a postponement — to prepare further. That request was granted and April 13 was to be the day of decision. But on April 13, UArts requested another continuance — this one for 30 days. That request was granted too — but not without some fireworks.
The university, which opposes the historic designation, is represented in this matter by Michael Sklaroff of Ballard Spahr. At the time of the December committee meeting, Sklaroff said that the university did not agree the building satisfied the criteria for designation; representatives from the Preservation Alliance, including its executive director, Paul Steinke, argued that it did.
Sklaroff said then that he hoped to meet with representatives from the Preservation Alliance and find common ground before the nomination went before the commission for a final review.
But common ground, as Sklaroff said on April 13, has not been located.
“We don’t have a way to go forward with the Alliance,” Sklaroff told the commission, adding that the alliance’s nomination was erroneous in its characterization of the building, spurring a he-said/he-said that was distinctly testy.
“We have had a 90-day continuance during which we invited the Preservation Alliance to come to the building to meet with the structural engineer,” Sklaroff told commission members. “I thought we had a very good meeting. I had hoped we would find common ground and come back with a more nuanced nomination. The nomination represents that the building is in good condition. I hoped to correct the record.”
Steinke disagreed with Sklaroff’s characterization of the nomination as incorrect.
“On Feb. 1, we took a tour,” he said, “and we brought along several of our board members who are experts in historic buildings. Nothing that we saw caused us to agree that our nomination is somehow in error by calling the building in good condition.”
“If having gone through that tour, they still think the building is in good condition,” countered Sklaroff, “I would love to see that on the record.”
The focus on the building’s condition seemed to be a change of pace for the university. Though Sklaroff had referred to the building’s condition in the December meeting of the architectural committee, it had not been at the core of the university’s opposition.
“We just don’t agree with the Preservation Alliance’s assessment of the historical status of the building itself,” UArts spokesman Paul Healy said in December. “It’s as simple as that. … We don’t agree that the building merits that designation.”
But now, the question of condition dominated the conversation, though it was arguably a distraction from the actual question on the table: namely, could the University of the Arts have 30 more days to prepare? After all, a building’s condition is not among the 10 criteria that determine a building’s eligibility for historic designation, according to city ordinance.
Even Commission Chair Thomas noted that a building’s poor condition would not argue for or against its designation.
“[The condition] really has no bearing on whether it’s worthy of nomination,” he said. “If Independence Hall was found to have structural cracks, it wouldn’t be removed from the register.”
Still, by characterizing the nomination as erroneous, Sklaroff was able to put the Preservation Alliance on the defensive, even though the hearing proper was not taking place. One member of the commission even asked nomination preparer Benjamin Leech to account for a discrepancy Sklaroff raised, taking the meeting into a completely different direction — one that was not flattering to the alliance.
After the conversation got back on track and the continuance was granted, a number of people filed out to the elevators, where Sklaroff was overheard discussing the building’s condition.
“There should be a gradation between ‘poor’ and ‘really poor’ — ‘sucks,’” he said, chuckling. “But they rose to the bait. So we will now demonstrate how — and we’ll do it in a brief, in effect — how irresponsible they were.”
Sklaroff went on to say that the building is structurally unstable, and lamented the “unfair” reality that once a building is designated, it’s designated forever. (Property owners of historically designated buildings must get approval from the Historical Commission before they make any changes.)
The nomination for the Jewish Y building was spurred last year after the Preservation Alliance heard rumors that UArts’ new president was mulling significant alterations for the building — and perhaps even demolition.
The Exponent also heard, from reliable sources, of a desire, on the university’s part, to tear down the building and put up a mixed-use high-rise in its place, with classrooms and residences. The university subsequently denied such plans.
The Gershman Y building, according to the architectural committee, successfully meets four of the criteria for historic designation:
- “Has significant character, interest, or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the City, Commonwealth, or nation or is associated with the life of a person significant in the past”
● “Reflects the environment in an era characterized by a distinctive architectural style”
● “Embodies distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style or engineering
● “Is the work of a designer, architect, landscape architect or designer, or professional engineer whose work has significantly influenced the historical, architectural, economic, social, or cultural development of the City, Commonwealth, or nation”
While the building is being considered for historic designation, it is in limbo and no changes can be made. The next meeting of the Historical Commission to consider the Y’s fate will be on May 12.
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