Historic mansion stays?: As lawsuit winds on, new plan offered for embattled property at 40th and Pine

November 26, 2013

A new chapter began last night in the ongoing saga of 400 S. 40th Street, the contentious property on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania’s growing footprint that includes a historic mansion that community members, developers and Penn officials have been quarreling over for a decade.

Developers presented preliminary drawings last night to the Spruce Hill Community Association zoning committee for a graduate housing complex that keeps the original mid-19th Century Italianate mansion, strips away the hideous concrete block additions added when it was a nursing home and adds a detached five-story, L-shaped housing complex aimed at graduate students.


Residents look over a preliminary drawing of a new proposal for 40th and Pine last night at the Spruce Hill Community Association zoning committee meeting.

“We’re hoping to build support for this approach and avoid a couple more years of litigation,” said Jonathan Weiss of Equinox Management and Construction, the developer behind “Azalea Gardens.” “We’re trying to find a way forward.”

The developers and officials from Penn, which bought the property at 40th and Pine streets in 2008,  presented the plan as a compromise to  head off a lawsuit filed by the nearby Woodland Terrace Homeowners Association after the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment (and the Philadelphia Historical Commission and SHCA) approved a plan last November that would have demolished the mansion to make room for a five-story structure. Penn officials argued that the mansion presented a hardship for any plans to develop the property.

That five-story structure without the mansion was proposed after many residents balked at a previous plan for a seven-story structure that kept the historic mansion intact. That proposal came after a plan to build an 11-story, long-term stay hotel (which was eventually built on the 4100 block of Walnut) was abandoned. 

About 30 residents turned out for last night’s meeting and most were in favor of the new version of the project, though it is in very early stages and has not really begun the gauntlet of community and city approvals necessary to begin construction.

“I’d love to see this over what’s currently there,” nearby resident David Brubaker told the committee.

What’s there is a deteriorating structure a stone’s throw from the 40th Street trolley portal that has been vacant for about 10 years. The project illustrates the delicate balance between town-gown relations, the need for developers to construct a building with enough units to turn a profit and the neighborhood’s historic architecture.

The new proposal would include 99 mostly studio and one-bedroom units. The mansion, which Weiss said is “severely compromised” inside, would include some units on the second floor and a common area on the first floor.

Some nearby residents were concerned about parking, which the plan does not include. Penn officials have said in the past that they would offer university parking at a fee in lots and garages to students who lived in the complex, the same as the university does for any student. The developers believe that the complex’s proximity to campus, the trolley portal and shopping on 40th Street would attract many students without cars. The plan also provides an area for bicycle parking.

Last night’s presentation was a way to gauge preliminary community and zoning committee feedback and had no official bearing on the project’s approval. Stay tuned for more on this one.


Preliminary drawing for 400 S. 40th St. A five story structure would wrap around two sides of the Italianate mansion, which would be stripped of the concrete additions.

5 Comments For This Post

  1. Catherine Brinkley Says:

    Almost anything is better than a vacant hulk sitting so close to UPenn, the trolley stop and some beautiful West Philly homes

  2. Jeremy Leipzig Says:

    I’m glad SHCA/WTHA put Penn’s feet to the fire about this. The hotel is at a much better location – even Tom Lussenhop would have to agree. And now it looks like they are up to building something within neighborhood scale.

  3. citywide Says:

    SHCA would rubber stamp anything Penn wants to do; they are OK with tearing the whole thing down. I think the scale and the design is still wrong. Why can’t Penn go to their own design and preservation departments to get a understanding of what would work in this situation.
    After all this time it still seems like Penn with all their billions of $$$ (yes, that is billions!) wants the community to view them as just another developer that needs to show a “profit”.

  4. osage Says:

    As much as I emphasize with some of the parking concerns on this street and a slight anxiety about the overall look of the new building (as such details are not yet pinned down), I have to say that is an unexpected and hopeful turn of events for those of us concerned about the quickening liquidation of our historic past. If this works out, this will set a good precedent for upcoming development within our historic quarters. The only thing that made me sad about Monday’s meeting was knowing that this kind of compromise between preservation and new development may have been a possibility for the 4300 Baltimore Ave lot. Thyllan Associates could have preserved the mansion (circa 1860s) that was on that lot as a symbol of their concern for the existing fabric of the neighborhood.

  5. ajs1512 Says:

    This seems like a fair and suitable compromise. Given that most developers don’t seem to give two cents about historic preservation these days, preservationists should consider this a victory and move on.

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