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Court halts Philadelphia condo project

The disputed decision by a Philadelphia zoning board to turn the site of a historic home into a luxury condominium tower has been overturned by a Pennsylvania appellate court, sending the issue back for further local review. The case is indicative of the hoops that people have to jump through to develop their own property.

The developer had proposed to build a 17-story condominium while retaining half of the home in Washington Square that once belonged to a former Philadelphia mayor. The home, built in 1957, is important to the area's history because of the mayor's decision to move to the Society Hill neighborhood, leading to the area's renewal.

Under the plan, the developer would turn half of the house into office space and a lobby, among its primary uses.

The Society Hill Civic Association has opposed the project. A representative for the group said he hoped the court's decision would force the developer to give up the plans, though the developer had not yet announced a decision.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission had approved the plan to demolish part of the home. The city's Board of Licenses and Inspections Review, however, rejected it twice.

The court didn't base its decision on history or whether the proposed condominium tower would fit the neighborhood character. Instead, it looked at a variance the project had received to construct the residential tower without a loading dock. Philadelphia zoning code mandates that buildings more than 50,000 square feet including a loading dock. The proposed building would be 90,000 square feet.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment had ruled that meeting the loading dock requirement would be a hardship for the developer because of space concerns. The court ruled the hardship existed only because the developer had proposed a building too large for the plot.

As part of its ruling, the court also required the zoning board to listen to issues from the community that the panel had previously said it would not consider.

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, "Luxury condos on Washington Square dealt setback," Robert Moran, April 10, 2012

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