Controversies: Showdown on Locust Street

In his elegant conference room, mulling this most grievous offense, Daniel Berger raises a question. “I ask you,” he says mournfully, “does this look like it’s appropriate?”

Berger is sitting at the head of a conference table inside the offices of Berger & Montague, the Locust Street law firm where he is a managing shareholder. A chandelier hangs from the room’s high ceiling. The wan midwinter light seeps in the giant bay window overlooking the street.

In the 35 years since Daniel Berger’s father, David, founded Berger & Montague, it has become one of the most prominent plaintiffs’ firms in the nation, litigating complex, massive class-action and antitrust suits. Berger & Montague was part of a team that won a $5 billion verdict against Exxon for the Valdez oil spill. It helped secure compensation for thousands of Holocaust survivors against Swiss banks. And it obtained millions in settlements for investors hurt by accounting scandals involving Rite Aid, Waste Management Inc. and Sunbeam. Such success has been a boon to the firm’s reputation and its bottom line. In October, American Lawyer reported that Berger & Montague was one of the 16 ­highest-­grossing plaintiffs’ firms in the country, estimated to have pulled in more than $50 million in 2003.

But on this February morning, Daniel Berger is not doing well. Still ailing from a bout with the flu, he looks pale and sounds awful — as if his nasal cavity has been stuffed with a drawer’s worth of wet socks. His physical condition seems to be but part of the problem. More obviously irritating is the square hunk of beige stone, the size of a dinner plate, sitting on the table in front of him. It’s a sample of the material that’s supposed to grace the facade of an eight-story condo complex proposed for the site of the old Locust Club, just down the block. Berger points a finger at the hunk of rock and asks again: “Does that look like it’s appropriate for this street?” He answers before there’s a chance to consider the many merits of beige rock. “I don’t think so.”

There have always been disagreements over development, of course. Such disputes are as American as apple pie, Chevrolets and post-game rioting. But in the past nine months, the battle over the Locust Club condos has become one of Philly’s more bizarre pissing matches. It’s neither the most expensive nor the most dramatic project in town. It won’t alter the skyline or affect city planning policy. It will not destroy a civic monument or raze a historic building. Yet the skirmish now involves an unlikely array of the city’s most powerful players. There’s Berger. There’s prominent ­personal-injury attorney Mark Mendel. There’s majordomo attorney Richard Sprague. And there are the city’s two most well-connected law firms: Klehr, Harrison, Harvey, Branzburg & Ellers, and Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll. Even God — via St. Mark’s Church — is in on the action. The involvement of such high-priced hitters usually signals a battle over power, status, or epic piles of cash. But that’s not the case with the Locust Club project. This fight is over something far more consequential: shadows.

It’s often easiest to begin with something everyone can agree on: The 1600 block of Locust Street is one of the more architecturally noteworthy slices of the city. John Notman, architect of the Athenaeum and Laurel Hill Cemetery, designed some of the block’s most notable townhouses as well as its most conspicuous landmark, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a building so quaint it’s a wonder leprechauns don’t live there. The well-known firm Cope & Stewardson built two residences on the block. Horace Trumbauer, the man responsible for the Free Library, designed another. The most glaring exception to the block’s old-world glamour is the Stein/Bellet building, a colorless six-story box that was apparently modeled on the least charming bus garage in Minsk. “Everybody just looks at that building and says, ‘Oh, what the hell is that?’” says Mendel, who owns 1620 Locust Street, one of the brownstones designed by Notman. “It’s a bicycle on a street of Bentleys.”

The old Locust Club building is not one of the block’s jewels. Bland and brick, it’s a two-story homage to blah. For nearly 75 years, it was home to its namesake, the members-only social club founded in 1926 to provide a Jewish counterpart to the Union League. When dwindling membership forced the club to shut down in 1999, the building was put on the market. A cloud of bad karma has hung about it ever since. Attempts to use the space as a restaurant and a nightclub quickly failed. In 2003, local businessmen Ken J. Ye and Tony Cheng bought the building for use, once again, as a restaurant. Their plan fell apart before they could order tablecloths. Within months, the building was back on the market.

Enter Connecticut-based condo developer Ceebraid-Signal Corp. In early 2004, even before the company completed its purchase of the property, Ceebraid president Jason Schlesinger unveiled sketches for a luxury condo project for the site. The initial design, a stark cube that gutted all but the front wall of a historic brownstone that lies between Mendel’s property and the old club, was about as popular as Legionnaire’s disease. Panned by neighbors, preservationists and other assorted design nerds, the plan was finally put out of its misery after Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron complained in print, “You can’t just plop a bulky box in such a historic spot.”

So Schlesinger tried again. He met with neighbors. He talked to preservationists. He hired a new architect, Agoos/Lovera, and gave the firm specific marching orders: Make the design complement the look of the block without turning it into Ye Olde Condominiums — a cheesy facsimile of a 19th-century building. “We wanted to create something new and interesting without simply trying to replicate something that was already there,” he says. To maintain the four-story cornice line of the neighboring buildings and minimize the visual impact of the new structure, the new plan called for a fifth-story setback from the building’s front and side. The seventh story was to be set back even farther, a terracing effect that makes the structure look not unlike the world’s most posh Mayan pyramid.

If the new design wasn’t cause for a group hug among architecture buffs, it was seen as a vast improvement. The Preservation Alliance gave its blessing to the project. The Historic Commission’s architectural review committee unanimously approved it, as did the Historic Commission itself. The Design Advocacy Group, a volunteer organization committed to promoting good design, practically gushed; “It’s handsome design and a good reconciliation” between economic necessity and historic sensitivity, says DAG chairman William Becker. Even Saffron gave a thumbs-up, calling the design a “generally enlightened plan.”

And yet, more than six months after the Historic Commission’s approval of the design, Ceebraid-Signal seems no closer to breaking ground than it was when it bought the property.

Which brings us to the issue of shade.

Agoos/Lovera architect Jim Rowe’s design calls for the building to be 116 feet tall, almost twice the height of its neighbors. Opponents of the plan fear that it will cast St. Mark’s—and its street-side garden — into perpetual darkness. “There has been a lot of focus on the issue of light, and that certainly is a significant issue for us,” says the Reverend Sean Mullen, St. Mark’s curate. The condos “will block sunlight that comes to our property.”

Mullen is a smart man. He realizes how weird this sounds. “I think in the press there has been a tendency to overanalyze that, as if it’s our only concern. I don’t think that’s a fair evaluation. I think it gets back to the question of size and scale. We feel this is a significant historic property on a significant historic block in a significant historic district of the city, and that it’s in the best interest of the city and the best interest of the neighborhood to preserve what gives the neighborhood its distinctive character.”
And what gives the neighborhood part of its distinctive character is, well, the absence of shadows.

St. Mark’s is hardly the only neighbor concerned about the project. From the beginning, Berger and Mendel say, they were alarmed about everything from Agoos/Lovera’s decision to use that beige Kasota stone for the building’s facade (“It’s totally out of character for the block,” Berger says), to congestion on Latimer Street, where residents will access the condos’ garage. Yet the chief gripe remains the height of the building. “Nobody in their right mind would probably have a problem if it was four stories,” admits Mendel. “Hell, I’ll even give you five.”

These grievances tend to mystify Jason Schlesinger. As he sits in a Center City coffee shop answering questions about the project, his head constantly shakes from side to side, his face frozen in an expression of grim irritation. As Schlesinger sees it, he has gone out of his way to accommodate neighborhood concerns. He points out, correctly, that he could build a much taller building under the city’s zoning ordinances. He notes that Agoos/­Lovera’s shadow studies (yes, there are such things) show that his building would cast minimal shadows on St. Mark’s. Lopping off four stories of the building, he says, is not economically viable. “I have tried to play by the rules, to reach out to people,” he adds. “It’s been full disclosure. People need to realize that they live in a vibrant, eclectic city. If they want two- or four-story buildings, maybe they should move to the suburbs.”

Schlesinger has a point. As approximately nine million people have previously pointed out, what makes Philly interesting is that it isn’t a Colonial Williamsburg schlock-fest, that it doesn’t subscribe to the bland consistency of a Georgetown. For better or worse, it’s a hodge-podge of uses and, sometimes, abuses. A mix of the sacred and the profane. Beauty and the bus garage.

Still, it’s hard to argue that Schlesinger couldn’t have anticipated the trouble his project would stir. This is, after all, a city where even a project that everyone agrees is needed — Penn’s Landing—takes 32 years (and counting) to get built. It’s a town where playing by the rules and reaching out is not, sadly, good enough. It is a city where the powerful expect nearly superhuman levels of ass-­kissing, where sycophancy has become high art. Where else in America could a City Council president demand that people call him — and actually get them to call him — “Mr. President” (as John Street did)? Where else are businesses (say, PECO) forced to make seven-figure “donations” to charity (say, Vince Fumo’s) just so they can have the pleasure of bringing much-needed goods, services and jobs to the city?

Indeed, perhaps the whole mess might have been avoided had egos been massaged, had more rings been kissed. Berger suggests his objections are as much about the process as the proposal. “If a savvy local developer had wanted to do this, I don’t think we would have been approached about these things at public meetings,” he says. “That’s not the way to get people to come to the table. It seems like you should know who the players are.”

But that didn’t happen. Instead, everyone lawyered up. Berger hired Richard Sprague, dean of the city’s trial attorneys. The church hired Carl Primavera, perhaps the city’s preeminent real estate attorney, of Klehr Harrison. Schlesinger, meanwhile, is represented by Ballard Spahr’s Neil Sklaroff, another big-shot real estate attorney (and brother of yet another prominent attorney, Ballard Spahr partner Michael Sklaroff, who is president of the Historic Commission and who recused himself from voting on this matter). What started as a spitball fight has become the Fourth Crusade.

It would require an overhead projector and some long division to fully explain the intricacies of the project’s current status, but the short version is this: The matter has been the object of several legal challenges — before the city’s Licenses and Inspections Review Board, the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and the Common Pleas Court — over everything from the granting of a zoning permit to approval by the Historic Commission. Even the lawyers can’t keep track. One of the few things all sides agree on is that the case isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon.

So, in the absence of resolution, the feud has devolved into a series of allegations and counter-allegations. Berger and Mendel say Schlesinger and Agoos/Lovera have “misrepresented” the size of the building — compared to its neighbors — to the Historic Commission (which Schlesinger denies). Schlesinger says Mendel and Berger have been disingenuous about when, and how much, they knew about the project. (Berger and Mendel both disagree. “The plans were always changing,” says Mendel.) Behind the scenes, Berger’s public relations team has compiled a dossier on Ceebraid-Signal, highlighting the fact that in 2000, Jason Schlesinger’s father, Richard, agreed to pay a $500,000 settlement to the federal government stemming from accusations that he misused government funds for a Baltimore-area public housing project the company managed. The fight has become, predictably, personal. Berger seems unable to mention the case without noting that Schlesinger isn’t from Philadelphia. Mendel calls the developer’s actions “duplicitous” and accuses him of neglecting the Locust Club property. “He hasn’t done one fucking thing to take care of it,” he says. When Mendel told Schlesinger how the construction would inconvenience him, he says, Schlesinger shrugged him off. (Schlesinger denies this ever took place.) “If that’s his attitude,” says Mendel, “I’ll keep him in court until he’s broke.”

Schlesinger may not be from Philadelphia, but he has adapted to its customs. He has learned to take a hit. He has learned to hit back. And he has pledged to fight on, no matter how long it takes, no matter how much money he spends, no matter how bitter it gets. “I’m a young man,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere.”