The days when historic preservation was about safeguarding quaint buildings on behalf of rarefied constituencies are long gone — as are far too many of Philadelphia’s irreplaceable landmarks. Nevertheless, the perception that historic preservation only benefits an elite few lingers. That’s why last week’s vote to create a historic district in the Overbrook Farms neighborhood was especially significant, because it also showcased the evolution of an essential civic task.
In 2019, historic preservation is more about protecting the past to benefit people currently living in Philadelphia. It must prevent erasure of the past by the voracious demands of the city’s real estate market, while also protecting longtime residents from the economic burdens that a historic designation can entail.
As demolition crews lop off part of the unprotected Jewelers Row to make way for yet another generic Center City condo tower, the Overbrook Farms designation is most welcome in a city that many believe has too few protected historic districts. It also makes Mayor Jim Kenney’s Historic Preservation Task Force report, unveiled last April after two years of work, very timely. While lacking some specifics wish-listed by preservationists, the report’s recommendations generally seem informed by the sort of community protests that long blocked the Overbrook Farms designation — particularly, the potential burden on property owners unable to afford, say, historically accurate replica replacement windows.
Wisely, recommendations call for creating alternatives to restrictive or rigorous categories of historic protection for some districts. Doing so would help “democratize preservation,” in the words of task force chairman Harris Steinberg, of Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. Some of the recommendations require action by the city; Councilman Mark Squilla has introduced legislation amending the city’s zoning and planning code to increase flexibility and reduce certain construction costs for historic properties to encourage re-use rather than tear-downs.
On Nov. 6, Kenney signed a measure to enable qualified property owners to construct accessory dwelling units, often referred to as “in-law suites;” two other bills now under review would reduce the required number of parking spaces and increase the number of permitted potential re-uses for particular properties. Squilla said he also is working on bills that would separately establish a demolition delay process for historic properties outside of historic districts, and set up a fund to defray some renovation costs.
Philly’s resurgent real estate market has sparked demolition of significant buildings or entire streetscapes and is likely to continue. Modifying guidelines for both historic districts and conservation districts, as recommended by the task force, could be a useful tool for Philly’s many solid, “middle” neighborhoods, many of which likely would welcome new investment that didn’t bring with it the sort of wholesale loss of identity often associated with gentrification.
Philadelphia architect Kiki Bolender describes the approach as tactical preservation: “It means you find a way to save buildings in a neighborhood because they embody history but also embody people’s memories." As more of the city’s built landscape comes under redevelopment pressure, we shouldn’t forget the resonant connection between people and place that helped make this city what it was and is -- and could be.