Another five-story proposal for ‘historic’ Germantown

by Tom Beck
Posted 2/1/24

Developer Olympia Holdings has a new proposal for the church parking lot next to the former site of Nolen Building Materials.

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Another five-story proposal for ‘historic’ Germantown


Just two months after neighbors voted down developer Olympia Holdings controversial plans for a five-story, 125-unit apartment building at the former site of Nolen Building Materials, the company is back with a new proposal for the church parking lot next door. 

Like the proposal for the Nolen warehouse property, Olympia’s plans for the site, which is currently a parking lot across from St. Barnabas’ Hall, call for a five-story building. This project, however, features just 33 units and conforms by right to the zoning code – meaning no variance from the city’s zoning board is necessary. 

But there’s a catch. Complicating the development process for Olympia is the newly nominated Germantown Urban Village Historic District, which was nominated by historian and preservationist Oscar Beisert after Olympia’s previous Church Lane proposal was withdrawn in November. The nomination includes the entire unit block of Church Lane Olympia hopes to build on, plus parts of School House Lane and some of the area immediately northeast of Lena Street.

“The city had left this really significant central place vulnerable to insensitive development,” Beisert said in a phone call. “And [developers] can build a five-story building that will ruin the historic character of the place.”

The nomination for the district was heard by the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation on Jan. 17. It’s scheduled to go before the full Historic Commission, which has the power to formally designate the district as historic, at a to-be-determined later date. 

Even though the historic district has only been nominated and not yet formally designated, Olympia is still required to go through the Historical Commission’s process for new construction in a historic district as per city regulations. 

The company was not met with a warm welcome either from members of the Historical Commission’s Architectural Committee, who saw the project for the first time last Tuesday or from residents who attended the meeting. 

Despite Olympia’s newly proposed project being significantly smaller than its now-withdrawn, 125-unit proposal for the same block, much of the criticism was related to both the size and design of the building, which many felt was too big and did not fit in with Germantown’s historic character.

“It’s only a stone’s throw from George Washington’s residence and a block from where Thomas Jefferson lived,” said Jim Dragoni, a nearby resident. “I am completely mystified as to how anyone would think that something that looks like this and is as massive as that could conceivably be appropriate for that location.”

Dan McCoubrey, a member of the committee, said that the building’s design “looks like it could be in a suburban office park” and “does not in any way communicate to me that it's in historic Germantown.”

Another member of the committee, Amy Stein, said the building “feels like a behemoth.”

Eli Kantrovitz, one of the developers with Olympia, said at the meeting that his company “definitely considers community concerns” and planned to work with the committee to make the building’s design mesh better with the surrounding architecture. 

“I do want to address your comments and design [concerns] and make it…look more historical,” he said. “We'll try to meet your requirements.”

Ideally, Beisert said, he’d like to see Olympia construct a residential building that’s only three stories at the proposed location.

“Even if it was four stories it wouldn’t be terrible,” he said. “A lot of neighbors just don’t want it to be that large. They want something that fits into the streetscape.”

The lot Olympia hopes to build on, located at 26-34 Church Ln, is considered a “contributing resource” in the historic nomination. Beisert told the Local this was because items of archaeological significance could be located in the grounds below.

“This square was the hub of 18th century Germantown,” Beisert said. “Anywhere where you have battles like the Battle of Germantown taking place [could yield significant artifacts underground].”

The potential historic district includes buildings and sites on Germantown Avenue, Church Lane, Lena Street, and East and West School House Lane, including The Ashmead House at 5430 Germantown Ave., the Saving Fund Society of Germantown at 5452-58 Germantown Ave., and Hamill Mill Apartments at 5423-27 Lena St.

If designated, the district would also include Market Square and the Soldiers’ Monument on its grounds. Market Square was created in 1703, according to Beisert’s nomination, and at the time included a pound and a log prison in the southeast corner, both of which were later removed. The park wasn’t used as a traditional park until the latter half of the 19th century.

“Market Square on Germantown Avenue and its cross streets…form a historic area of considerable importance, epitomizing a microcosm of the larger architectural history and development patterns that define the Upper Northwest, as well as the cultural, political, economic, social, and historical heritage of Germantown,” the nomination says. “While Market Square may be the primary public center of the former town, ultimately becoming a neighborhood in Philadelphia, its buildings and structures speak to the form, fenestration, scale, and aesthetics of Germantown’s main street.”