In the last half-decade, advocates in Philadelphia have built some momentum around the idea that the 336-year-old city is facing a crisis of historic preservation. The underfunded Historical Commission can’t keep up with the volume of historic buildings that need protection, they’ve argued, while a hot real estate market and a set of perverse incentives are pushing developers to demolish more and more neighborhood assets.
Last April, in recognition of those issues, Mayor Jim Kenney appointed a 33-member Historic Preservation Task Force, charged with reviewing how the city approaches preservation to create a better balance with new development. Today, the task force meets for the last time, to review and approve a draft of its final report, containing dozens of recommendations for improving preservation in the city. Harris Steinberg, executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University and chair of the task force, says he hopes the group will approve the report by consensus, without needing to vote.
“I really wanted this to be a consensus document,” Steinberg told reporters in a briefing earlier this week. “I didn’t want there to be any minority opinions.”
Consensus was an ambitious goal given the range of interests represented on the task force, which included real estate developers and lawyers, elected officials, archaeologists, community representatives, professors, and preservation advocates. But it may be an easier lift given that the task force’s recommendations are just that — policy recommendations, with no legal power or even draft legislation to implement them. After the report is delivered, Steinberg says, it’s up to the city, the preservation community, and the public to push ahead with its goals.
The recommendations fall into four categories: Surveying historic resources, creating incentives for preservation, regulating preservation outcomes, and public outreach and education. Some of them, if enacted, could have significant impacts on development and preservation practices in the city.
In Philadelphia, only properties that are listed on the local Register of Historic Places are eligible for special protections from demolition and other physical changes. But only around two percent of the city’s building stock is protected — substantially less than some peer cities — which leaves many qualified buildings unprotected.
One of the task force’s key recommendations is to create an index of properties that would likely be eligible for historic designation and to provide for an expedited historic review process if a demolition permit is pulled for any of those properties. The recommendation would allow communities an opportunity to protect buildings that are historic but not currently listed on the local register. It is a twist on a full “demolition review” process that some advocates have been hoping for, which would require a Historical Commission review of any property older than 50 years that a developer is planning to demolish. (The more rigorous version of the policy is in place in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the U.S., according to the report.) Dominique Hawkins, founder of the Preservation Design Partnership and co-chair of the task force, acknowledged in a briefing with reporters that creating the index could require the city to contract out some of the survey work to consultants.
To incentivize preservation and adaptive reuse, the task force recommends a number of strategies: Changing the tax assessment formula to account for historic designation, accelerating permit speed for rehab work on historic buildings, reducing or eliminating parking requirements on historic properties, allowing income-producing accessory dwelling units on historic properties to reduce the burden of maintenance, and making zoning changes to permit a wider range of uses on historic properties by right, to make reuse easier. It also recommends creating a zoning bonus specifically for historic preservation, and tweaking the city’s 10-year property tax abatement to reduce the incentive to tear down historic buildings.
Many advocates have noted that the city’s zoning is not always in line with its stated interests in historic preservation. In one prominent case, a developer sought to tear down an iconic row of jewelry storefronts to build an apartment tower—a plan that was theoretically allowed because of the permissive zoning on the property and the fact that the buildings were not listed on the historic register. One of the overarching recommendations in the task force’s report is to align all of the city agencies that regulate the built environment behind historic preservation and to correlate zoning to meet historic preservation goals.
When Kenney appointed the task force last April, he noted, “Our historic preservation ordinance is more than 30 years old and was written when Philadelphia was a very different place. We need to look at preservation for a city that is adding people and jobs, while still keeping in mind the resource constraints we face.”
But Steinberg and Hawkins say the 18-month task force process has shown them that the city’s historic preservation ordinance itself is among the strongest in the country. The legal framework for protecting more of the city’s historic assets is there, they say. The report gives the city “a richer basket of options” for making preservation more effective. But ultimately it’s a matter of political will. The task force will accept public comment on the draft for one month before delivering its final recommendations to the mayor. After that, it’s anyone’s guess.
“The political class is only going to move if the citizenry wants it,” Steinberg says.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.