It’s easy to think of the Jewelers’ Row debacle as the latest in a series of Philadelphia’s preservation fails: If only the listless Historical Commission had recognized the importance of the row’s 19th-century workshops sooner. If only Mayor Jim Kenney wasn’t blowing smoke when he promised to aggressively defend the city’s heritage. If only the city’s policy elites weren’t completely in thrall to development. Then Toll Bros. wouldn’t be on the verge of ripping out a major chunk of America’s oldest jewelry district to build a generic glass tower.
But while Jewelers’ Row is a hard lesson about historic preservation in Philadelphia, it is also a zoning story. What really set the stage for the destruction of that Sansom Street block were changes embedded in Philadelphia’s zoning code after a new rulebook was adopted in 2011. Density was elevated to religious doctrine. Center City — from the Schuylkill to Independence Mall, Vine to Locust — was rezoned to make it easier to build skyscrapers.
Density zealots loved the changes. After all, the new towers promised to concentrate more people in Center City, enlivening its streets, providing more customers for its restaurants and shops, and fueling its creative economy. The construction of apartment buildings was also supposed to increase the stock of affordable housing (although we’re still waiting for that one).
The problem was that the new zoning maps lacked any sort of nuance. Planners simply painted all of downtown dark red, the color for CMX-5, or skyscraper zoning, even though one of Center City’s greatest assets is its narrow, human-scaled streets.
The buildings that line those streets, especially Chestnut, Sansom, Walnut, and Locust, come in all sizes and architectural styles. Not all of them are standouts, obviously. But the ensembles they form are remarkable. And like Jewelers’ Row, most of those ensembles lack historic protection. Basically, the new code encouraged developers to tear everything down and build the biggest towers they possibly could.
The Jewelers’ Row tragedy was a wake-up call for the Center City Residents Association, which represents the area west of Broad Street. This is Philadelphia’s 20th-century downtown, and it has some of the best architecture in the city. In 1988, the Historical Commission established the Rittenhouse-Fitler Historic District to protect the southern part of the neighborhood, which is largely residential.
Yet, because districts were a new idea back then, they left out some of Center City’s most notable commercial ensembles: the 1600 block of Walnut, the 1700 block of Sansom, and nearly all of Chestnut between Broad and 20th. The lapse didn’t matter when Center City’s real estate market was moribund, but now that it’s sizzling, developers are scrambling to buy up those blocks to erect towers. The proposal for a 14-story overbuild on the former Freeman’s Auction House, on the 1800 block of Chestnut, shows what lengths developers will go to be near Rittenhouse Square.
The easiest solution would be to extend the boundaries of the historic district to include those commercial streets. But despite a new report on how to fix the broken preservation system, that’s not likely to happen. It’s been two years since the Preservation Alliance submitted the paperwork to create a Jewelers’ Row historic district, yet the proposal continues to languish in a committee. Spruce Hill, one of the most intact Victorian neighborhoods in the country, has been waiting two decades for its historic district to be implemented.
Given the administration’s lack of enthusiasm for historic districts, the Center City Residents Association decided to turn to zoning. The group isn’t opposed to new high-rises, but it believes city planners need a stronger grip on the wheel. “Right now, you could collect all the buildings on the 1700 block of Chestnut and build another Liberty Place,” says Michael Schade, the cochair of the CCRA’s remapping committee.
After months of discussion, the group came up with four zoning tweaks to help manage the neighborhood’s rapid change. Three have been embraced by the Planning Commission, which has drafted the bills necessary to make them law. It’s hoped that Council President Darrell Clarke, who represents the area, will introduce the measures this fall.
The proposed tweaks (outlined in the Center City Quarterly) sound incredibly modest. The changes would limit the width of new buildings on Chestnut and Walnut to 60 feet and require buildings on Sansom to use wedding-cake-style setbacks. Those simple changes wouldn’t prevent the loss of all historic buildings, but they could limit the extent of the destruction. It’s only too bad that the new zoning would apply only to the west side of Center City. The eastern half, where development pressures are becoming intense, needs those protections even more urgently.
Unfortunately, the Planning Commission rejected the CCRA’s strongest recommendation. The neighborhood group wants to dial down the zoning on those streets to CMX-4. Developers could still build skyscrapers, but the change would force them to engage first with the CCRA and city planners.
Because Center City has the best transit access in Philadelphia, city planners worry that the change from CMX-5 to CMX-4 would lower the density too much. “We need to ensure that we are accommodating growth at the same time we are protecting our neighborhoods," Paul Chrystie, spokesperson for the Planning Commission, wrote in an email.
That’s a pretty weak excuse. It also suggests the administration isn’t willing to do the work necessary to fine-tune Center City’s zoning map, so it’s not one-size-fits-all. The Planning Commission has been adamant that density should be concentrated in Center City because it has the best transit service.
But that doesn’t mean every Center City street can handle the same level of density. CCRA argues that it makes more sense to concentrate high-rises on wide modern streets like Broad, Market, and Washington Avenue, and along the Schuylkill.
It’s not as though Philadelphia has a shortage of building sites. CCRA says it’s fine with building skyscrapers on surface lots and supported the Laurel, a 48-story tower now going up on an empty site across from Rittenhouse Square. And, just across the river in University City, there are even more asphalt lots where high-rises would make sense, all of them transit-accessible. Why continue a system that leaves some of the city’s most distinctive blocks vulnerable when there is room to grow?
There are ways planners could update the zoning map to manage the location of new high-rises. In some parts of Manhattan, high-rises are allowed only at the corners. Not only does that placement ensure towers are spaced to prevent shadowy canyons, it helps preserve some of the older buildings in the middle of the block.
Density is a highly charged subject right now, with the zealots arguing for unrestricted construction to encourage affordable housing, and density skeptics like Clarke and Councilman Brian O’Neill demanding that the city return to single-family zoning. Council has formed its own commission to explore a zoning overhaul.
What we know is that cities are about more than the number of people they can cram into every acre. We need old buildings and new buildings, big buildings and small buildings. Most of all, we need a balance between development and the precious heritage that gives Philadelphia its unique identity.