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Historic preservation gets a bit easier in Philly as mayor signs incentives into law

The bills, introduced during the summer by Councilman Mark Squilla, are designed to make it easier to reuse Philadelphia's historic buildings — something developers often claim can be too difficult or expensive.

Fishtown's St. Laurentius church has been the subject of an intense years-long historic preservation battle. A local developer has the century-old property under agreement, but his ability to develop it was delayed by lengthy legal proceedings.
Fishtown's St. Laurentius church has been the subject of an intense years-long historic preservation battle. A local developer has the century-old property under agreement, but his ability to develop it was delayed by lengthy legal proceedings.Read moreJOSEPH KACZMAREK / For The Daily News

Mayor Jim Kenney signed into law Wednesday three bills designed to incentivize the protection of Philadelphia’s historic buildings, beginning the process of making good on a 2015 campaign promise to bolster preservation across the city.

The bills, introduced by Councilman Mark Squilla and Councilwoman Cindy Bass during the summer, aim to make it easier to reuse historic buildings by reducing the extra planning and money that real estate developers say they must spend on preservation. Repeatedly, Philadelphia has seen important, old buildings razed rather than restored because it’s too difficult, developers say, to make historic redevelopment projects financially feasible.

The bills focused on reducing parking requirements, easing zoning restrictions, and allowing “accessory dwelling units,” such as “mother-in-law suites" or a basement rental unit. All three bills apply only to buildings on the city’s Register of Historic Places, or that contribute to a historic district’s character. City Council passed the bills in October.

Kenney called the legislation a “milestone" and indicated that he would continue to enact bills that support historic preservation.

“Protecting our historic resources is important to our administration and residents across our city,” Kenney said. “We’re making progress, but we still have work to do.”

Since the Historic Preservation Task Force released findings earlier this year observing that Philadelphia lags most of its peers when it comes to protecting historic properties, the city has been working to implement some of the recommendations from the 33-member group. Beyond the legislation, the city has created a policy team that will make “operational improvements” to preservation processes, a city spokesperson said. Additionally, the city has selected a vendor to create an inventory of historic properties.

Still, even with recent historic preservation wins — including the declaration of Overbrook Farms as a historic district — nearly 97% of the city’s buildings remain unprotected. Meanwhile, demolitions hit a record high in 2018, and several high-profile buildings have fallen this year.

Kenney, who was just re-elected to a second term, has not escaped criticism for his approach to preservation. This week, a commentary in The Inquirer by Bradley Maule, a local photographer and editor, questioned the mayor’s leadership on Jewelers Row, where Toll Bros. plans to build its first residential tower in Philadelphia, replacing several jewelry businesses on the 700 block of Sansom Street. With demolition of those properties underway, Maule wrote, instead of leadership there was “only unanswered protest and textbook capitalism.”

Preservation advocates have pushed for stronger policies, with some citing the success of tax abatement and credit programs offered for historic protection in other cities. For example, Cook County, Ill., which contains Chicago, rewards the rehabilitation of “landmark” buildings by reducing for 12 years property tax assessment levels for owners who invest at least half of a historic building’s value in a redevelopment project.

In its final report, the Historic Preservation Task Force did not recommend changing the city’s tax abatement, which allows property owners to forgo paying real estate taxes on new construction or property improvements for 10 years. However, it did recommend that the Office of Property Assessment take historic preservation status into account when it assesses a property’s market value.

Still, the bills Kenney signed Wednesday will offer relief to historic property owners, advocates say. Parking requirements are often said to add significant costs to redevelopment, so one of the bills eliminates parking minimums for historic buildings when they are redeveloped. The bill also reduces parking requirements by 50% when a developer puts an expansion on a historic structure.

The zoning bill makes it easier for historic “special-use” properties — churches and theaters, for example — to be redeveloped for other uses. Because these properties can be difficult to restore, the legislation is designed to offer more flexible zoning without needing a variance. Had that bill been law, it might have helped the former St. Laurentius church in Fishtown, which has been the site of a years-long preservation battle. A developer wanted to redevelop the church into apartments, but his request for a variance was repeatedly challenged. The fate of the church remains uncertain.

The third bill authorizes accessory dwelling units on historic single-family properties, allowing, for example, the option to turn an attic into a rental unit. All three bills will become effective Jan. 1.

Squilla’s office said earlier this year that it is working on legislation that would set up a Historic Preservation Fund, which preservation advocates hope will offer grants to help low- and moderate-income homeowners pay for repairs on historic properties.