A demolition notice on the front door of Christian Street Baptist Church in Philadelphia

Philadelphia Hopes to Harmonize Historic Preservation

Against the backdrop of America’s past and a thirst for new development, a task force is navigating how to save buildings, engage neighbors and rethink a profession striving to be more inclusive.

Story by Jared Brey

Photography by Joshua Albert

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Even without the bright orange demolition notice pasted onto its double doors, Christian Street Baptist Church wouldn’t be the most striking building in South Philadelphia.

There’s more high drama in the arched doors and windows of St. Paul’s Catholic Church, one block east. There’s deeper history behind the stone walls of St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, the first Italian national parish in the United States and the starting point for the procession of the saints during the Italian Market Festival every May. For a total vision of sacred architecture, Christian Street Baptist doesn’t compete with the National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia, half a mile to the southwest.

Still, the church, originally built as a Protestant Episcopal mission for Italian immigrants, has been a landmark in the Bella Vista neighborhood since the 1890s. African-American Baptist congregations mainly have been the occupants since the early part of the 20th century. An open belfry tops the eastern tower of its asymmetrical facade. The doorway is capped by a stained-glass transom, surrounded by ornamental terracotta. The brickwork is more intricate on the church than on the similarly scaled rowhouses that surround it on both sides. There’s nothing else exactly like it in the entire city, and if it’s torn down, there will never be anything like it again.

“You could just look at it from an architectural perspective and say that it is a unique building — the scale of it, the style of it,” says Oscar Beisert, a professional architectural historian who’s active in local preservation advocacy. He frequently engages the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which ultimately decides which buildings get placed on the city’s Register of Historic Places, by filing nominations. “You could make a case for the architecture. But I think what’s particularly special about this building is that it relates to the history of immigrant populations in Philadelphia. The Protestant Episcopal Church was the most fashionable religion in 19th-century America, and so because of that, they had a lot of money, and they started a lot of these mission congregations to not only try to convert people, but to provide social services that the government didn’t provide at the time.”

Today, Bella Vista, south of Center City, is among the most competitive real estate markets in Philadelphia. Newcomers are mostly white; longstanding black communities have dwindled. The current congregation at Christian Street Baptist Church has contracted as well — it’s now only about a dozen strong — and has struggled to maintain the property. This year, the congregation decided to sell the church, which has structural issues and a mold problem; they were also eyeing the prospect of securing cash to move to another facility.

In a matter of hours, a Philadelphia developer who planned to tear down the church and build townhomes offered just below the asking price of around $1.5 million, and the congregation accepted. Then Beisert stepped in. He nominated the church for historic protection at the city level.

Christian Street Baptist Church may be unique, but its dilemma is not. In a similar case in 2015, Beisert and other preservationists stepped in to designate First African Baptist Church, the oldest of its kind in Pennsylvania, six blocks west of Christian Street Baptist, after the pastor sought to sell it to a developer who proposed demolition. In that case, the demolition was opposed by a group of congregants as well, and while the church was eventually sold, it was also listed on the historic register, and is being repurposed as a daycare center and condominiums. A Pew report released in October concluded that many of Philadelphia’s historic religious properties are facing maintenance problems, and that more and more congregations will face tough choices about what to do with their properties as time goes by.

“It really comes down to a question,” says Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which supported the nomination of Christian Street Baptist Church. “Does a congregation, like any other property owner, have the right to extract full value from their property? Or does the community have the right to retain these ornaments to the cityscape in some way? Is it a desired goal of city government to facilitate the transitioning of religious properties away from sacred use? We would argue that it is. Churches are one of the most important parts of the built environment in terms of imparting character and a sense of permanence to a neighborhood, and religious properties in particular should receive special consideration in terms of incentives and regulations to encourage their preservation and adaptive reuse.”

It’s not just churches that are under threat. The rejuvenation of Philadelphia’s real estate market has been accompanied by the destruction of iconic theaters, beloved diners, public schools, landmark hospitals and hundreds of run-of-the-mill rowhomes that, taken together, make up the essential urban fabric of the city.

Last-minute applications filed for preservation as a wrecking ball swings toward a building, however, aren’t a sustainable long-term plan. Neither are methods that end up pitting advocates like Beisert against a church congregation struggling to maintain a property. So Philadelphia is now trying to move past the perceived crisis of demolition. With an increase in the Historical Commission’s budget and the appointment, in the spring, of a Historic Preservation Task Force, the city is hoping to develop a more proactive approach to preservation. Over the course of the next year, the task force will be developing recommendations for how to balance development and preservation in a city that for decades has been desperate for development of any kind. And it’s doing all of this with an eye on making preservation a more inclusive practice, and chipping away at the notion that preservation is the sole province of elite professionals working purely in service of aesthetics and buildings designed by prominent architects.

A Wake-Up Call for Historic Preservation

If there was one case that focused the city’s attention on its vulnerable historic architecture, it was the proposal last year to demolish six buildings on Jewelers’ Row, a block of 18th- and 19th-century buildings, six blocks east of City Hall, that make up the oldest diamond district in the United States.

Residential developer Toll Brothers took the city by surprise when it pulled a permit to build a 16-story housing complex on the small-scale row. As two leading members of the local Design Advocacy Group wrote in an op-ed, virtually everyone had assumed that the iconic district was already protected. But not only were the buildings not listed on the historic register, they were also sitting in the most permissive commercial zoning category in the whole city and — from a developer’s point of view — on an underbuilt stretch of high-value real estate. Toll Brothers’ proposal sharpened advocates’ sense that the city’s approach to preservation was failing.

Mayor Jim Kenney, who had talked up his commitment to preservation during his campaign but hadn’t made much concrete progress on the issue six months into his term, was forced to react. Acknowledging that Toll had a legal right to demolish the buildings, he called on the developers to incorporate the facades into whatever they ended up building. Last December, when Toll’s proposal grew to 29 stories and still included no clear commitment to preserving any of the buildings, Kenney said the plan was “deeply disturbing.” Four months later, he announced the appointment of the Historic Preservation Task Force.

Jewelers' Row is a block of 18th- and 19th-century buildings, six blocks east of City Hall in Philadelphia. It's the oldest diamond district in the United States.

Harris Steinberg, director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University, is chair of the new task force. He says that they want to align all the municipal agencies that deal with land use behind a common vision that includes both preservation and development.

In its early meetings, the group has engaged in some wide-angle soul searching about the purposes of historic preservation and the strengths and weaknesses of Philadelphia’s regulations. At one session, commissioners openly wordsmithed a vision statement:

Philadelphia in 2030 has preserved the unique identity of its historic buildings, blocks and neighborhoods while embracing new investment.

Philadelphians are active protectors of their neighborhood history and cultural identity. In partnership with foundations, developers, civic leaders and government, residents identified the buildings, sites and places that are important to protect for future generations in order to tell the story of Philadelphia and its people.

The city uses regulations and incentives to protect these important places that reflects the values of its residents and results in the extraordinary layering of history that makes Philadelphia unique.

It’s an aspirational vision, and one that will require negotiating many competing interests. Even setting aside longtime conflict between preservation and development, historic preservation itself is undergoing a transformational redefinition.

For a long time, historic preservation was seen primarily as an important end in itself, a recognition that iconic works of architecture are keys to understanding the past. But in recent years, advocates have sought to defend preservation as a practice that serves a broader array of public interests. In 2010, Econsult released a report showing that over 10 years, preservation projects in Pennsylvania had accounted for more than $1 billion of investment, 9,800 jobs, and $24 million in state tax revenue. In the same period, preservation work had generated $660 million in investment, 2,800 jobs, and $6.6 million in tax revenue in Philadelphia alone, the report concluded.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation created an “Atlas of ReUrbanism” showing that areas with older and smaller buildings tend to have more minority- and women-owned small businesses, more affordable homes and more jobs generally. It promotes the idea that preservation serves sustainability goals, with the maxim that “the greenest building is the one that’s already built.”

Whose Task Force? Whose Preservation?

The values that the 33-member Historic Preservation Task Force end up promoting could have profound impacts on which preservation projects are prioritized in the city and, in turn, the very shape of the built environment in neighborhoods across the city.

In developing their recommendations — and making the case for them — members will likely have difficult conversations. This is the main defense the task force has offered for the decision to do the work of its four subcommittees away from the public eye. There’s also a plan to hold open meetings in neighborhoods around the city to solicit public input.

“So far it’s been a very collegial process and the subcommittees have organized and started to work diligently from the get-go,” says Steinberg. “It all seems to be working right now without any tension that is forcing me into having to adjudicate one way or the other. Will that be likely nine months from now? I’m hoping. But it will get more difficult, more challenging, as we start to come up with: What is the story we’re telling? What are the recommendations we’re making?”

The task force includes not only preservationists, historians and architects, but also archeologists, developers, attorneys, economists, planners and community representatives. In a draft of a report on the state of preservation in Philadelphia (expected to be finalized in January), the task force acknowledged that the “constituency for historic preservation is geographically but not demographically diverse.” In its effort to broaden that constituency, the task force hopes to make recommendations for how the Historical Commission can improve education and outreach — an official plank of the Commission’s mission that it has rarely pursued.

But with respect to diversity, the task force itself stumbled out of the gate. In a July column, local journalist and radio host Charles D. Ellison noted that 24 of the 29 original members of the task force were white. “The theme of the Task Force, given its very specialized subject matter, is to let the architects, preservationists and real estate developers handle it,” Ellison wrote. How could the group broaden the definition of preservation if it was composed of the usual suspects?

Ellison wasn’t the only one who noted the lack of diversity, and at its second meeting, the task force responded by adding several people of color, some of whom were listed as “community representatives.” One of the new additions, Trapeta Mayson, the executive director of Historic Germantown, says she initially assumed that the invitation was simply a reaction to the criticism, but she was excited to represent Germantown and add her voice to the discussion.

“I wanted to know: Do you want real input or was this sort of like an exercise?” Mayson says. “And so we had that conversation.”

Mayson says her conversation with Steinberg made her believe her perspective and experience would be valued on the task force. She was named a co-chair of the education and outreach committee, and she says she has faith that the task force will develop good recommendations.

But Faye Anderson, a preservation activist and director of All That Philly Jazz, a public history project that is telling the story of Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz, says she feels like she was “uninvited” from the task force. Over the summer, she says, task force staff reached out to her to see if she would be interested in joining. She says she took a few days to make sure she’d be able to attend the meetings, and then said she would join. To this day, she says she has not heard back from them.

“They never expected me to say, ‘Yes,’” Anderson says. “I don’t think they wanted me, they just wanted to say they asked.”

In Anderson’s opinion, the task force is just a delay tactic. If the city really wanted to address its preservation issues, she believes, it could do so simply, by making a survey of historic resources and committing more resources to protecting them; in the short term, she thinks Philadelphia needs a citywide survey and a demolition moratorium. The problem is that the city doesn’t have the political will to do so, she says. And she’s critical of the task force for trying to stay above the fray.

“We’re in the middle of a demolition crisis and [the task force] says nothing,” Anderson says. “What is it waiting for? Whenever the report comes out, what will be left?”

Steinberg has said that the task force’s job is “not to advocate.” But it has noted that preservation advocacy suffers from the belief that it is “elitist and focused on the protection of wealthy people’s homes and famous architects’ buildings,” as the draft report says, citing a presentation from the Preservation Alliance. That perception may be beginning to fracture around the country, as diverse communities have begun to take up the cause in more high-profile ways. But it’s still firmly rooted.

“For the most part, preservation up until now has been seen by many as an elitist, educated, largely Caucasian profession,” Steinberg says. “Whether that’s true or not or whether it’s valid or not doesn’t matter. I think that’s the perception. The hope is that with this process we can begin to change that, and that’s all part of this question about the broader definition of preservation.”

Anderson says that the presence of lawyers, developers and consultants who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo represents a built-in conflict of interest, one that will keep the effort from producing any meaningful outcomes.

Mayson says that participating in the task force has already informed her understanding of preservation.

“I find it really fascinating, because coming from a historic organization, often the thought is that preservationists are preservationists and developers are developers, and I’m finding that that’s not really the case,” Mayson says. “There are some very thoughtful developers who care about preserving communities.”

From Demolition to Development

“Demolition in general, whether it’s a beautiful church or a crappy, one-story, brutalist building — it’s a conversation,” says Ori Feibush, the Philadelphia developer who’s planning to buy Christian Street Baptist Church. “Demolition has inherent risks. It’s costly. It always pisses off neighbors, regardless of what the structure is. And then if you add something that people wish stayed up, it only adds to that stress and that consternation.”

Oscar Beisert’s push to have the church designated as a historic building threatened the sale because, for Feibush, adaptive reuse is a nonstarter. The layout is awkward, the windows don’t work for apartments, the rear facade is stuccoed over, the near-complete lot occupancy would make it difficult to brace the building to preserve the facade. The only part worth $1.5 million is the land underneath the church, he says. It would be worth a third as much if the building had to stay standing.

Feibush acknowledges the church’s argument that designating the building will deprive the congregation of the money they need to continue their ministry. At a Historical Commission designation committee meeting in October, Tahnee Hall, the treasurer of Christian Street Baptist Church, said that the congregation wouldn’t leave the building if they could avoid it, but that the bricks and mortar of the property were not the priority. The history of the church would be carried with the congregation and shared with their children, whatever happened to the building itself.

Some advocates think there could be a solution that would serve everyone.

“We would have liked to help the congregation explore alternatives to a hasty sale and demolition, but the congregation did not seem to be interested,” says Rachel Hildebrandt, a senior program manager at Partners for Sacred Places, a national nonprofit headquartered in Philadelphia that sees such congregations as vital anchor institutions. She adds that Feibush is setting the narrative about the building’s value, but the only way to find out what the property could fetch with the existing buildings is to put it back on the market with that condition.

“There are developers in Philadelphia, believe it or not, who are interested in redeveloping historic property,” Hildebrandt says.

Christian Street Baptist Church has been a landmark in Philadelphia's Bella Vista neighborhood since the 1890s.

Current regulations only apply to a small fraction of the buildings in the city. Just 2.2 percent of the city’s buildings are designated historic, according to the task force’s research, as opposed to an average of 4.3 percent in 50 cities in the country. Given the amount of eligible buildings that aren’t protected, it’s not surprising that preservationists have been forced to step in at the last minute to prevent demolitions, according to the task force.

In some cases, even assets that are widely acknowledged as historic go unprotected for years at a time. The Philadelphia Historical Commission has nominations for several historic districts that have been sitting on the shelf that it is only now hoping to move forward on after getting funding for two additional staff members in Mayor Kenney’s most recent budget. Christian Street Baptist Church itself was listed as a prominent landmark worthy of consideration for protection in a 2015 city plan.

But even if it had been designated then — even if it were to be designated now — that wouldn’t really resolve the dilemma, Feibush says. It’s one thing to legally prevent a historic building from being demolished. It’s another thing entirely to facilitate a viable reuse for the building’s future.

“There needs to be, for lack of a better word, basically a grant program available,” he says. “There has to be compensation. You have to level the playing field, because the easy argument is always that a creative developer can find a way. And I agree with you. But the problem is, that creative developer is always going to be in a position where he’s offering less money, or she’s offering less money, than the developer ready to tear it down.”

Preservation advocates readily concede the point. Beisert notes the incentive of the city’s 10-year tax abatement for renovation and new construction. The city should consider incentive programs, such as extending the abatement for historic buildings that are more challenging to restore or re-use or other community-serving institutions, to make the buildings more enticing to a wider range of developers, he suggests.

“If there’s going to be a tax abatement that leads to investment, why not at least have some component that is geared toward things that have architectural value?” Beisert says. “And then it would help offset some of these costs.”

For other ideas, the city could look to the work of a previous preservation task force from a dozen years ago. One suggestion from that group’s report, which was not pursued, was that the city could use tax increment financing, which lets owners keep some of the increased taxes they would otherwise pay on improved properties, to support preservation work in historic districts.

At the national level, the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program, started in 1976, allows developers to offset the cost of rehabilitation projects by up to 20 percent for properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s been used for more than 40,000 projects nationwide, leveraging more than $84 billion in private investment, according to the National Park Service. But the tax credit is only available for nationally recognized buildings.

Besides, as a Republican-controlled Congress debated a new tax plan this fall, the federal historic tax credit was in jeopardy. Initial bills in both the House and Senate completely eliminated the tax credit, though it was saved in the end. As the threat loomed, advocates noted that eliminating the program could be devastating not just to historic rehab projects but to economic development in cities more generally.

“There are times where money is just the answer,” says Paul Chrystie, a spokesman for Philadelphia’s Department of Planning and Development, which includes the Historical Commission. “Taking money away — you can’t overcome that. Taking money away from a program that pays for itself and generates neighborhood revitalization, generates jobs, is just silly.”

As the task force highlighted in its draft report on preservation in Philadelphia, the city currently has no financial incentives designed to encourage the maintenance or restoration of historic properties. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has a representative on Philly’s task force, is trying to help. In June, the National Trust named the historic neighborhoods of Philadelphia a “national treasure,” as it has done for parts of Miami, Louisville and Detroit. And as part of its work with the task force, the National Trust is researching incentives that other cities and states have used to support preservation, and will be offering some case studies for the city to consider.

“In many ways, it’s about values,” Steinberg says. “What’s important to us? How do we direct public monies to effectuate the kind of projects or change we’re looking for? It would not surprise me if the incentives subcommittee came up with creative and interesting new ways to incentivize this balance that we’re talking about.”

Meanwhile, Feibush maintains that he’ll sign the contract on Christian Street Baptist Church over, at cost, to any developer who has a viable plan to adaptively reuse the church. Paul Steinke says he has found a few developers and investors who might be interested.

Finding the True Value of Historic Preservation

The task force was planning to have its white paper on the state of preservation in Philly finalized by December. But members had so much feedback on the draft that the final report isn’t expected to be complete until later in January. The task force will then spend six months developing recommendations for how the city can update its regulations, or create incentives, for how to complete a survey of historic properties and improve education about historic properties. Steinberg says the goal is to create recommendations that are actionable, rather than lofty.

The success of its work will rest largely on whether it’s able to expand the scope of preservation in Philadelphia, to not only bring it into harmony with a broader vision of the city’s development, but to make questions of preservation more immediate to more people.

“Our preservation laws were designed originally to encompass the broad range of history and the broad range of cultural heritage that every American values,” says Will Cook, associate general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “When these laws were being applied in the very beginning, there tended to be an emphasis to focus on significant architectural heritage of national leaders of the colonial period. So because of that emphasis, I think it’s fair to say that there’s a lot of untold history that has not become known, based on the National Register of Historic Places, and that’s been changing over time.”

Mayson works as a poet and artist as well as the director of Historic Germantown, and says she’s spent a lot of time talking with Germantown residents and recording their stories. More people than not have a general interest in preserving old buildings, she says, but getting people to invest in preservation requires presenting historic assets as a foundation for the present and the future more than as relics of the past.

“If you’re able to do the work to make it relevant, and show people how they can find themselves in the history of that building or of that community culture,” she says, “then you don’t have to sell them on anything else.”

Next City’s coverage of Philadelphia’s changing neighborhoods is made possible with the support of the William Penn Foundation.

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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.

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Joshua Scott Albert is a Philadelphia-based photographer and reporter. He's contributed to VICE, Buzzfeed, Philadelphia Magazine and several other outlets.

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