Toll Brothers to Build Apartments on Society Hill Playhouse Site

Apartments are also planned for the site of the garage across 8th Street. The company says it's the only way it can build profitably by right.
The revised Toll Brothers projects on 8th Street. Rendering | JKRP Architects for Toll Brothers

The revised Toll Brothers projects on 8th Street. Rendering | JKRP Architects for Toll Brothers

What was to have been a double-barreled Toll Brothers condominium development on the site of the Society Hill Playhouse and a garage across 8th Street from it in Washington Square West is going to be rental apartments instead. Along with that change comes the disappearance not only of the 19th-century playhouse and the garage but of all the parking on the site as well.

If the residents of Lombard Mews, Rodman Street and Bradford Alley in the vicinity of the Society Hill Playhouse find themselves complaining that it’s even harder to find a place to park a year or two from now, they will have no one but themselves to blame, for their opposition to Toll’s project led the company to replace it with one that can be built by right. As a result, the first-floor garages planned in both buildings were removed to bring the new structures under the block’s height limit, which stand at 38 feet.

“We had met with the neighbors in Lombard Mews and on Bradford Alley, and with the WSWCA Zoning Committee,” said Shawn Frawley, senior project manager at Toll Brothers’ City Living division, which owns the two parcels.

What Toll Brothers had wanted to build on these lots were luxury condominiums: 24 on the site of the garage and 22 on the site of the Society Hill Playhouse and the parking lot to its south. Both structures would have had indoor garage parking.

But it seems that the neighbors had issues with the height of the resulting buildings. “We were having some decent conversations until some neighbors said, ‘Whatever you do, we’ll oppose it,'” said Frawley. In addition, “the Civic Association said it wouldn’t approve anything without the approval of the neighbors,” Frawley said.

Judith Appelbaum, chair of the Washington Square West Civic Association‘s governmental affairs committee, presided over the meeting where Toll made an informational presentation to neighborhood residents. (Zoning Committee Chair Jon Broh works for project architect JKRP Architects and thus recused himself.) “Toll Brothers never came to the RCO with a formal proposal for the project,” she said. “We had informational meetings where the project was presented to the Zoning Committee and neighbors for discussion. We gave them feedback and indicated that we were willing to continue talking with them.

“Toll also had several groups of meetings with neighbors to negotiate details of the project, and at some point, the negotiations broke down. At some point, they came to the conclusion that they were never going to get anywhere with the neighbors. So Toll ended the discussions and decided to do the by-right project, and once you go by right, the RCO isn’t involved.”

The block’s RM-1 zoning has a 38-foot height limit. That meant that instead of the five-story, 51-foot-high structures Toll had planned to build, they were limited to four stories, and with that, the garages had to go.

That height limit also eliminated some mitigating touches neighbors wanted in the new buildings, particularly those on Bradford Alley, an extremely narrow lane on the north side of the playhouse building. “A lot of the neighbors weren’t disappointed the [Society Hill Playhouse] building was going away,” Frawley said. “The Bradford Alley neighbors didn’t like having their views blocked, and many don’t like the mural on the side of the building.”

The original buildings JKRP designed for Toll included stepbacks on the Bradford Alley side of the playhouse-site building to allow more light and air to reach that street. But with the building restricted to a 38-foot-tall envelope, those are now gone. “Bradford Alley will get the same view,” Frawley said. “The removal of the stepbacks makes the walls look taller to the neighbors.”

The project’s Lombard Mews neighbors proved particularly difficult to satisfy. “We have some environmental and structural issues with the garage site,” Frawley said. “When we brought these up with the neighbors, they said we were threatening them so we could do what we wanted.

“We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we don’t say anything about the environmental problems, we’re the big bad developer hiding things from them.”

The Lombard Mews residents also were unhappy with the height of the proposed building. Frawley said that the stepbacks on the rear wall of the original garage-site building made that building appear not much taller than the one it’s replacing, but with the loss of the fifth story, those also went.

The original design of the 8th Street buildings. Rendering | JKRP Architects for Toll Brothers

The original design of the 8th Street buildings. Rendering | JKRP Architects for Toll Brothers

So did the original exterior materials. Dark brown brick is out; metal and precast cladding is in. That, Frawley explained, is because rental apartments do not produce as much revenue as condos for sale.

But as the condos were to have been, the apartments will be upscale. The buildings will contain a mix of one- and two-bedroom units, all with terraces, and Toll is still considering the possibility of some units having roof decks.

Toll spoke with neighbors about the redesigned buildings, and Frawley said some of them didn’t like these designs and were trying to convince others to go back to the original plan. But with a group of neighbors firmly opposed to anything taller than 38 feet high, that wasn’t going to happen either. Some neighbors said they were happy with the revised designs, but Frawley said, “I can’t imagine they really would be.”

Then there’s the issue of the loss of the Society Hill Playhouse itself. Some neighbors did try to get the Historical Commission to protect the 8th Street facade, but by then, Toll Brothers had already obtained demolition permits for the building, which is not certified. “The people who wanted to save the playhouse the most were not the ones living next to it,” Frawley said.

The Society Hill Playhouse will close on April 1, according to Ticket. Toll Brothers expects the project to take 12 months to complete once the company obtains the required permits. Its projected completion date is the spring of 2017.

[Updated Jan. 28, 2:04 p.m. to correct quotes.]

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