The Archdiocese of Philadelphia will lease for 99 years a portion of its property surrounding the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul for the construction of two Philadelphia high-rise towers.

The roughly four-acre block located in center city between 17th and 18th streets and between Race and Vine streets overlooks the city’s main locus of arts and culture, Logan Circle and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which hosted visits by St. John Paul II in 1979 and Pope Francis in 2015.

Financial terms of the agreement on the Cathedral Block Project with master developer EM Race Vine Venture were not disclosed in an announcement Nov. 23.

Construction will begin as soon as the end of this month on the first of the project’s two phases to develop roughly two acres of the property when a vacant convent, built in 1957 at the corner of 17th and Race streets, will be demolished.

Rising in its place on the east and south sides of the lot will be a 23-story tower with 273 apartments, ground-floor retail space and 18 underground parking spaces.

It will stand adjacent to the existing Archdiocesan Pastoral Center at 222 North 17th Street. That building, constructed in 1969, will remain in use throughout the development.

Also remaining are the cathedral rectory, which accommodates three priests in residence plus parish workers, and the iconic cathedral basilica, completed in 1864, and its attached chapel.

A concept illustration shows at right the proposed phase one building and at left phase two for the Cathedral Block project on the site of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. At bottom is the cathedral and its rectory, with the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center between the two proposed towers. (Rendering by the firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz)

A subsequent phase two development envisions another high-rise tower on the north and west side in place of the vacant Holy Family Center, a four-story office structure built in 1960 that will also be razed.

The large-scale, mixed-use tower would encompass not only the footprint of the center but all of the parking area currently located along Vine Street on the property.

According to preliminary plans approved by the City of Philadelphia’s Civic Design Review Board last February, the phase one building would top the height of the cathedral and pastoral center, while the proposed phase two would rival nearby office towers and exceed the height of City Hall, becoming a new landmark on the city’s skyline.

The plans also call for pedestrian-friendly landscaping with shrubbery and benches around the cathedral, the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center and the proposed buildings.

The archdiocese will retain ownership and lease only the ground on which each of the new structures will rise.

The project has been long in the making. In 2012 the pastoral center was marketed for possible development that did not materialize. The current intention to develop the 2.32 acres envisioned for both phases dates back to the fall of 2016 when the the Logan Square Neighborhood Association reviewed a initial proposal favorably.

A year later, the archdiocese invited developers to submit plans, according to the Nov. 23 announcement.

EM Race Vine Venture was incorporated in Delaware in August 2019 and selected as the lead partner for the project on Sept. 27 of that year. Chicago-based firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz has been selected as the lead architect for phase one of the project.

The ground lease is not unprecedented for the Philadelphia Archdiocese. In 2013 it transacted with StoneMor Partners to operate the 13 archdiocesan cemeteries in a 60-year lease agreement that provided $53 million in a lump sum and between $1 and $15. million in annual payments for 35 years.