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Historic preservation shouldn’t be an excuse for exclusion | Editorial

Safeguarding history through development restrictions makes sense, but the city's most beautiful neighborhoods should remain dynamic and welcoming places for all.

Spruce Hill is seeking to be designated a historic district to cover its vast collection of Victorian homes. In a historic city like Philadelphia, preservation is important, but it can be exclusionary.
Spruce Hill is seeking to be designated a historic district to cover its vast collection of Victorian homes. In a historic city like Philadelphia, preservation is important, but it can be exclusionary.Read moreInga Saffron

After decades of stagnant growth, a flood of investment and development in areas such as Center City and University City has some questioning whether they’ll recognize these neighborhoods in the future. In a historic place like Philadelphia, the country’s first World Heritage City, preserving the past should be paramount.

For many residents, historic districts are the answer. These designations take the focus away from individual buildings and concentrate instead on preserving the appearance of an entire neighborhood. The goal is to provide a sense of continuity despite change.

But while safeguarding history through development restrictions makes sense, it’s important to create districts that don’t exclude lower-income residents, limit new development on empty spaces, or add suburban-style density restrictions and parking requirements.

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After all, historic districts don’t just prevent the demolition of existing buildings; regulations call for special approvals for even minor structural improvements. The Philadelphia Historical Commission requires review for the “construction, installation, alteration, removal, replacement, of covering of” items such as windows, storm windows, dormers, doors, storm doors, security doors, shutters, porches, steps, stoops, ramps, balconies, fences, balconies, awnings, and more. Homeowners who might otherwise have opted for a $300 door or a $150 window from Home Depot must instead peruse historically accurate “Architect Series” products, with prices “available upon request” — those three words are never an indicator of an inexpensive purchase.

Additionally, while the appreciation in home values that often comes with preservation districts may be welcomed by some homeowners, for renters, it likely represents an obstacle to remaining in their neighborhoods long term, and higher prices preclude many first-time home buyers from settling in preserved areas.

Philadelphia has already seen this exclusive vision of historic preservation play out.

In Society Hill, one of the city’s wealthiest and most walkable neighborhoods, a preservation overlay — or exemption — was used to keep the neighborhood exclusive. It rightfully attracted opposition from Planning Commission head Anne Fadullon and a veto from Mayor Jim Kenney. Despite claims from supporters that the exemption was not intended to keep people of color or those with lower incomes from moving into the neighborhood, there’s nothing historic about parking minimums or density and height restrictions.

Society Hill’s efforts inspired other neighborhoods to follow suit with exemption requests of their own. These overlay districts now dominate the city. Rather than a single coherent whole, the exemptions break Philadelphia into a series of overlapping fiefdoms, each with its own rules and regulations.

There’s a danger of something similar happening with preservation districts. In North Philadelphia, some neighbors want to stop the construction of a new police station on what’s currently a vacant lot at 21st and Diamond Streets. In Roxborough, opponents of a proposed historic preservation district told this board that advocates presented the plan as a way to stymie new construction and make the neighborhood more exclusive.

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In West Philadelphia, home to the largest collection of Victorian architecture in America, these tensions are perhaps more pronounced than anywhere else in the city. Spruce Hill, a proposed historic district, has borders that are nearly identical to those of the Penn Alexander grade school, which benefits from grant funding from the nearby University of Pennsylvania. This has given rise to concerns among some neighbors that Spruce Hill will become more exclusive and less representative of Philadelphia over time.

With that in mind, the Historical Commission should consider more elastic ways to protect historic architecture. It may be that rather than regulating every minor renovation, simply protecting existing buildings over a certain age from demolition may be sufficient. To prevent exclusivity, neighborhoods petitioning for historic status could be asked to waive other restrictions, such as parking minimums and single-family zoning, which can drive up the cost of housing.

Philadelphia’s history is important and should be cherished, but it’s also vital that the city and its most beautiful neighborhoods remain dynamic and welcoming places for all.