Society Hill Towers in Philadelphia has the history, design, leadership, reserves, and amenities that make it a sought-after address for residents of all ages.
By Joe Cantlupe
SOCIETY HILL TOWERS soars over Philadelphia's brownstones and historic buildings. It is an architectural anomaly in an area that includes Independence Hall. The three, 30-story, 309-foot modernist towers were designed by one of the greatest architects the world has ever seen, I.M. Pei.
Completed in 1964, the towers include 614 units—converted from apartments to condominiums in the 1970s. Residents of the complex, which stands at the top of a hill with 5 acres of green space, take in Old City's history and urban appeal, enjoy views of the Delaware River, and gather at the outdoor pool in warmer months.
Jerrold “Jim" Morris, a Philadelphia attorney who is vice president of the board, has lived in the community since the 1980s. He talks about the uniqueness of the place and its sense of history.
Morris recalls a celebration marking the towers' 45th anniversary. “I.M. Pei told the assembled crowd it was probably the best maintained residential property he had ever designed," he says. “The towers also are significant because it's probably the best condominium campus in the city. It has gotten rave reviews; it has beautiful landscaping and picnic areas."
With fantastic views, a 350-car underground garage, easy access to public transportation, and short walks to restaurants, historic sites, and businesses, Morris declares, “There's not much we don't have here."
Jo Holz, the board president, instantly fell in love with the towers when she and her husband moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., for a research position at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
“We really liked the architecture and the pedigree," says Holz. “It's sort of midcentury architecture and modern and not to everyone's taste, but it has that cache. We also enjoyed how friendly everyone was and the activities."
Holz, a scholar, author, and former senior market research executive for NBC Universal and Nielsen, quickly became involved in the community. She started a speaker series for residents and also was involved in a movie discussion group, among others.
The community includes a fascinating demographic of all ages—people in their 20s to 40s, baby boomers, and a few people in their 90s and even 100s. For many, Society Hill Towers was a draw when they were younger, then they moved away, and returned years later, says Brett Scioli, the general manager.
“It's a diverse population, and there have been long-term residents," he says.
Society Hill Towers takes full measure of its long history, but it also has a sense of continuing needs for improvement. It recently underwent a costly upgrade of its heating and air conditioning system, and rigs recently could be seen going up and down the sides of the buildings for façade repairs.
The community just finished replacing the HVAC system, which was desperately needed as heating and cooling riser pipes were leaking, Scioli says.
“It was painful for people who lived here for a period of time, but when you have an older building like this, the aim is to keep moving forward to the future," he says.
The massive, $16 million job marked the only time the community has issued a special assessment.
“We had many meetings with homeowners and told them why it was needed and what had to be done," Scioli adds.
There also is continual maintenance work. In December, construction crews worked on repairing building deterioration from the weather. “There is cutting concrete, and we are replacing that. That is something that is done every five years," says Scioli.
Workers also are replacing ceilings under the porticos on each building. Soon, the community will be paving, painting, and carpeting interior hallways. “There's always a large project going on at the towers," says the manager.
Another one being considered: a renovation of the popular pool. The board is considering the possibility of changing it from a seasonal, outdoor pool to a full-time indoor pool.
The ongoing maintenance and improvements are possible because the community's efforts to maintain and buttress its capital reserves over the years have been consistently successful. Residents credit the financial flexibility to the acumen of the board.
“The community has a reputation for having one of the better counsels and boards of directors," Moss says. “We have more substantial capital reserves than most."
About one-third of the annual assessment goes into capital reserves, according to Moss. He estimates that the community has saved between $1 million to $3 million.
“Every year, we put $100,000 or more into reserves, and money left over from the operating budget or supplies are pushed into capital reserves," Moss says.
Holz says the community plans to keep the fund as high as possible. “We know it's an aging property," she says. “If you end up delaying things, it will cost more and more."
Scioli says Society Hill Towers has always had a healthy capital reserve. He doesn't anticipate any more special assessments.
The pandemic and COVID19 restrictions put a damper into all the possibilities at Society Hill Towers. “We kept the pool open but limited the number of people that could be in the grilling area, and everyone had to wear masks," says Holz. “Though they couldn't grill together, even those residents were so happy to go down to the pool and see their neighbors."
The community closed its fitness center at the outset of the pandemic. Now, it limits capacity and requires masks.
Society Hill Towers' workers adjusted shifts so they would be on different hours to maintain distancing. “Our staff was here every day," Scioli says. “The staff couldn't work from home. It's been a challenge."
A major concern recently is a new tower adjacent to a nearby Marriott Hotel that will block views of the river.
The 31-story, 272-unit residential high-rise will be 374 feet tall, making it the highest structure in Society Hill. The tower will hold 63,200 square feet of space and feature a roof deck and a rooftop pool. Residents in the area, including those at Society Hill Towers, opposed the plans when they were introduced in 2019, but permits were issued this past summer, and construction began.
The new tower is expected to be finished by 2024.
“How do I compete with a new building going up across the street?" asks Scioli. “We make infrastructure changes to compete with the other guys. We're trying to keep these condos competitive."
Next up at the towers is a lobby renovation as well as regular maintenance.
“We don't put off things," he says. “I don't believe in fixing the same thing 12 times."
The condominium complex has always maintained its viability amidst a changing housing market by keeping one step ahead with maintenance and upkeep. It helps to have a board with experience and expertise.
“Some people on our board have engineering or technical backgrounds, and there are a wide range of ages. I have young board members and some older board members," Scioli says. “This a good board."
Joe Cantlupe is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.
SOCIETY HILL TOWERS in Philadelphia's Old City neighborhood are the defining features of I.M. Pei's development plan that covers several city blocks and blends sensitively into the pre-existing urban pattern. Dozens of new townhouses designed by Pei echo—in both scale and materials—the many historic houses that also were restored under the plan, which won a Progressive Architecture Award in 1961 from the American Institute of Architecture.
The three, 30-story, 309-foot modernist towers feature an outdoor pool, bicycle storage, deluxe storage lockers, storage rooms, fitness centers, an electric vehicle charging station, hospitality suite, community room, laundry rooms, access to a carshare, and a bulk cable television agreement.
»Learn more about Society Hill Towers at www.societyhilltowers.com.
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