Historic Preservation in Philly Needs a Truce – and Then a Plan

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URBAN PLANNER Harris Steinberg called for a comprehensive plan to head off conflicts between Phila.'s developers and preservationists in advance.

URBAN PLANNER Harris Steinberg called for a comprehensive plan to head off conflicts between Phila.’s developers and preservationists in advance.

by Tony West
Philadelphia needs a better way to handle the challenges of historic preservation as it enters a new cycle of dynamic development, Harris Steinberg told the Building Industry Association’s annual conference at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Sept. 22.

He was referring to the recent outcry over Toll Brothers’ proposal to demolish part of iconic Jewelers’ Row to build a luxury residential high-rise. But Steinberg cited similar conflicts in Philadelphia over the past few decades – and called them dysfunctional.

“We need a truce,” he said. “We need a way forward.” Steinberg urged an official historical-preservation plan for the entire city as that way.

Steinberg may be Philadelphia’s pre-eminent scholar of urban planning. Currently head of Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Planning, he long led the University of Pennsylvania’s clinical design program, PennPraxis, which brought community input to major development issues in the 2000s, when Philadelphia’s economy and real estate were stagnant.

Today, large-scale development is no pipe dream. It’s happening in many neighborhoods and its pace is fast. The BIA’s members represent developers. They want to know in advance what they can do and what they can’t do before they plan to build.

In a long walk down Philadelphia’s Memory Lane, Steinberg argued the city’s architectural community has always been preservationist – that’s why we have so many elegant and interesting buildings and neighborhoods from earlier eras.

At the same time, he pointed out Philadelphia’s development has always been dynamic. “It has been built and rebuilt over time,” he said. Almost every structure we regard as “historic” today was built upon the site of an older structure that was torn down to make way for something else.

Historic significance is not simply a matter of age, Steinberg insisted. Most old buildings are not worth preserving for their own sake. But, he insisted, “Philadelphia has an inherent scale and character that has significant value.” Preserving this value when new projects are on the table is a subtle challenge; “there is a struggle to achieve a balance,” he said.

Philadelphia has long been known for arcane, arbitrary zoning policies that stifle development. The zoning reform of 2012 went a long way to fix this, but problems remain.

Brian Emmons, a Toll Brothers executive and current president of the BIA, groused to Steinberg, “What we now have is preservation by retaliation” – by lawsuit, that is, when neighbors or historians take offense to a proposed development that otherwise looks legal and economically attractive.

Steinberg did not take sides on Jewelers’ Row. He chose to address the future of history instead.

A few other cities have adopted comprehensive historical-preservation plans, he noted. Charleston, S.C., led the way with such a program in 1974. Today it enjoys a splendid urban landscape of antebellum architecture which coexists happily with bustling commercial life. Los Angeles and Fort Worth followed suit a dozen years ago and are actively working on their plans.

A good plan takes time, Steinberg said, because its first step must be a comprehensive citywide inventory of what’s historically valuable and what isn’t.

A plan is never initiated without leadership, he said. In Los Angeles, for instance, the Getty Foundation floated the idea and made a multimillion-dollar commitment to it. In Charleston, a popular, long-serving mayor drove the project.

But Philadelphia, lamented Steinberg, “is post-Quaker. We abhor leadership.”

Where might the leadership for Philadelphia’s historic plan be found? Steinberg nominated no one, although he commented the William Penn Foundation is “everybody’s favorite ATM.”

Serious planning for Philadelphia’s preservation may make new sense with its recent designation as a World Heritage City. Nobody is really clear yet what this means for the city’s future; but if it can lead to a boom in tourism and other international business opportunities, it may be wise to lay ground rules now for how to grow and preserve at the same time.

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One Response to Historic Preservation in Philly Needs a Truce – and Then a Plan

  1. Royal Farms should not be allowed to come and build on Trinity Church Oxford’s property. The entire property should be preserved.

    Matt Jackson
    September 29, 2016 at 11:34 am

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