Smooth sailing ahead

The historic Naval Home has survived nearly two decades of neglect, including an arson attempt last winter. Now it looks as if plans to construct a high-end residential community on the site will finally get moving.

The mayor’s office announced last Wednesday that a civil lawsuit against the owner of the property, Toll Brothers, stemming from an arson fire in February has been resolved.

The site’s Biddle Hall was damaged in the blaze. The building has been a National Historic Landmark and on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places since 1975.

Toll Brothers has been ordered to repair the charred roof of the building and address other code violations on the property. The company also will pay the city $50,000 to cover the cost to seal and secure Biddle Hall and to hire a structural engineering consultant who examined ways to preserve the historic building. Toll Brothers already has hired a 24-hour surveillance firm to monitor the property and has made repairs to other buildings on the 20-acre site at 2420 Grays Ferry Ave.

The developer is seeking final approval to build a gated luxury home community at the Naval Home. It would include 800-1,000 residential units incorporating Biddle Hall, said Adam Barzilay, manager of acquisitions and development for Toll Brothers’ urban division.

The community will feature several styles of homes, ranging from one-bedroom rental units to four-story townhomes. Prices for the townhomes are rumored to be around $300,000.

Barzilay said prices have not been determined.

Toll Brothers is waiting for final approval of its plan from the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which Barzilay said is expected in six weeks. The first phase will include 350 units.

Residents got the opportunity to see Toll Brothers’ plans during a neighborhood meeting two weeks ago, said Terry Gillen, the Democratic leader of the 30th Ward.

Most of the residents’ concerns about the development have been resolved — the new neighbors will not be permitted to get parking stickers to park in the area, and plans for an 18-story high-rise have been eliminated.

Residents are still not happy they will be kept separate from their neighbors by a gate, Gillen said.

"People felt that it was a slap in the face to the community," she said. "There was a bit of a feeling that Toll was saying, ‘We don’t feel this is a safe neighborhood.’"

But, in general, she added residents are happy the blighted building will be repaired.

Biddle Hall is an example of Greek Revival architecture designed by 19th-century architect William Strickland, who also designed the Ridgway Library, now home to the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. It is constructed primarily of marble, granite and cast iron.

The Naval Home Complex was the original location of the U.S. Naval Academy and also served as a residence for retired Naval and Marine Corps personnel.

In 1976, the Navy moved out. Toll Brothers bought the property from the federal government in 1982 for $1.2 million; at the time, it still contained businesses. The site was vacant by 1987.

Toll Brothers announced plans to finally build on the Naval Home site in 1998. During the next five years, the company worked on development plans that would be satisfactory to the surrounding residents and the city, state and federal historical commissions.