Philadelphia’s Historic Shift on Preservation

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Elfreth’s Alley is not under threat of demolition. But hundreds of properties in the USA’s most-historic city are at risk due to poor public protection. A new City program will toughen safeguards for historic buildings. Photo courtesy of Elfreth’s Alley Association.

BY PAUL STEINKE
April 2019 is a hopeful, and even historic, month for historic preservation in Philadelphia.

Mayor Jim Kenney released the final report of his Philadelphia Historic Preservation Task Force, identifying a set of priorities and action steps to implement many of the report’s recommendations to encourage the preservation and re-use of older buildings across the city.

In our view, Philadelphia is the most historic city in the United States, and we have over 300 years of architectural history to prove it. Our city has the second-largest number of pre-1945 buildings in the nation, trailing only New York City.

Yet in recent years, a building boom has taken root in many of our city’s neighborhoods. This has led to an alarming wave of demolitions. We’ve seen beautiful, one-of-a-kind buildings fall, only to be replaced with cheaply built and uninspiring structures.

Why has this been happening? While the Philadelphia Historical Commission has the power to protect buildings through the process of historic designation, in fact we have only protected about half as many buildings – 2.2%, as compared to the average of the 50 largest cities, which is 4.4%. This means that close to 98% of the structures in Philadelphia can be demolished simply by applying for a demolition permit. So many of the historic churches, schools, banks, and beautiful rows of pre-war homes that make so many of our city’s neighborhood’s distinctive can be demolished with a minimum of effort on the developers’ part.

PRESERVATION ALLIANCE leader Paul Steinke.

The Philadelphia Historic Preservation Task Force was formed in 2017 to examine best practices across the United States for protecting and preserving historic building fabric and to make recommendations on how our city can do a better job of it. Why does this matter? In a TED talk I listened to recently, New York-based (and University of Pennsylvania-educated) architect Marc Kushner pointed out that we spend most of our time inside buildings or surrounded by them.

As a result, we develop deep-seated visceral and emotional ties to the buildings we inhabit, work in and pass by daily. The quality of our built environment, central to how we humans experience our world, strongly influences how we feel about our lives. The way we use buildings, and how we maintain them and preserve them – or not – has a major impact on our happiness and productivity. Buildings are important.

Happily, Mayor Kenney’s plan announced last week broadly aligns with suggestions the Preservation Alliance has long been advocating for. They include creating more flexible historic districts that will provide protections against demolitions in historically worthy neighborhoods across the city. Another set of recommendations would enact incentives to restore and re-use historic buildings, including providing zoning bonuses for preservation projects and reducing red tape.

Just as importantly, the mayor’s plan endorses creating a much-needed citywide inventory of historic resources so that we know and understand what we have in terms of historic architecture; such an inventory has already been done in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles.

So now the hard work begins. We need the Mayor and City Council to follow through on the ideas and suggestions of the Task Force with action, in the form of City Council legislation and continued Administration support.

To help make sure that happens, we need all Philadelphians who care about the quality and character of their neighborhoods to let the Mayor and their City Council representative know that they support historic preservation as a critical ingredient of the quality of life in Philadelphia today.

The Preservation Alliance thanks Mayor Kenney and his administration for creating the task force and devoting its energy and brain power to making it a success. We are also grateful for the efforts of the 33 Task Force members themselves, led by Harris Steinberg and Dominique Hawkins, and including City Councilman Mark Squilla and our own Advocacy Director Patrick Grossi.

We look forward to working with the Mayor, City Council and the people of our great city on realizing the task force’s objectives. It is only through the smart management of our city’s historic built environment that we can achieve the many benefits that come from reinvesting in our city’s incomparable and historic built environment.

Paul Steinke is the executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

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