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Inga Saffron
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In West Philly, a Jewelers Row-style preservation debacle on a neighborhood scale

By blocking the designation of a neighborhood historic district, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell is allowing developers to level West Philadelphia's jewel.

Another Victorian house in Spruce Hill is being ripped apart. This one is at 41st and Sansom.
Another Victorian house in Spruce Hill is being ripped apart. This one is at 41st and Sansom.Read moreInga Saffron

As you read this, another handsome Italianate villa is being ripped apart in the Spruce Hill section of West Philadelphia, this time at 41st and Sansom. Its demise comes on the heels of a big loss around the corner on Chestnut Street, where a stately row of identical, Civil War-era townhouses lost four of its members. Not long ago, developers gouged a hole in the middle of a picturesque block of Victorian twins on 45th Street, the kind with deep porches supported by classical columns. In each case, flimsy student housing is taking the place of the lost 19th-century buildings.

Never has Philadelphia seen so many good buildings displaced by bad ones.

Mayor Kenney responded this spring by forming a task force to look for strategies to contain the damaging side effects of the city's decadelong building boom, and the 30-member group finally got down to work last week. If they want to understand what's wrong with the system, they should take a good look at Spruce Hill, the leafy suburb-in-the-city west of the University of Pennsylvania. Spruce Hill faces a Jewelers Row-style preservation debacle, but on a neighborhood scale.

In theory, Spruce Hill should be thriving. Considered one of the finest 19th-century "streetcar suburbs" in America, its eclectic blocks of Victorian homes and apartments were recognized as a National Historic Register district in 1997. Since then, it has seen significant public and private investment, including a Penn-supported public school and the sparkling transformation of Clark Park. Young families are flocking to the area.

Yet demolitions continue for one simple reason: Philadelphia has never protected Spruce Hill by making it a city historic district.

That is not for want of trying. The Spruce Hill Civic Association strongly supports the designation because it would require development projects to undergo Historical Commission review. Twice in the last 30 years, the commission's staff and residents have laboriously cataloged the neighborhood's buildings and prepared a formal nomination to put Spruce Hill under its protection.

Twice, the neighborhood's City Council representative, Jannie Blackwell, has used her clout to quash the effort.

"I tried to hold up the historic district as long as I could," Blackwell told me in interview, boasting of her success. Unwilling to cross her politically, every mayor since Wilson Goode has deferred to her wishes.

Her rationale is that it would be hard for low-income homeowners to meet the Historical Commission's rigorous renovation standards. But the commission has a long history of helping financially strapped owners find affordable solutions.

Meanwhile, the lack of a district designation has cost the neighborhood dearly.

It's not just that the civic association has no legal basis to stop developers from tearing down its Victorian classics, said Barry Grossbach, who heads the civic association's zoning committee.

The group also has no say in the design of what replaces them, as long as the new building conforms to zoning. Under Philadelphia's rules, you can get an over-the-counter demolition permit for any building that is not listed on the city's historic register. The National Register listing is merely an honor and offers no protection.

None of that mattered back in 1987 when the Historical Commission first proposed forming a district, similar to those that now exist in 15 other neighborhoods. Although many of Spruce Hill's large Victorians already had been carved into student apartments, there was no extra profit to be made by replacing them with something new. That remained more or less true in 2005, when Blackwell blocked the second attempt to create a Spruce Hill district.

Since then, several forces have come together to create a perfect storm. Changes in the zoning code enabled people to put up slightly larger structures without a zoning variance. Because house lots in Spruce Hill tend to be very deep, landlords found they could significantly increase the number of apartments by replacing a quirky Victorian with a more efficient modern building.

A proposed zoning remapping might have acted as a brake, but Blackwell said she has blocked that, too. The city's generous property tax abatement ensured that developers wouldn't even have to pay higher taxes for the larger buildings.

Meanwhile, the local universities — Penn, Drexel, and the University of the Sciences — embarked on massive expansions, adding students and employees. Even though they have been constructing new dorms, demand for apartments in Spruce Hill never faltered, said David J. Adelman, who runs Campus Apartments, the largest property owner in Spruce Hill. Even in an old house, he said, a one-bedroom commands $800 to $1,500 a month in rent.

Because virtually all of Campus Apartments' units are in older buildings, the company has been a force for preservation. But that could change. For just the second time in its history, the company is demolishing an intact Victorian — the Italianate house at 41st and Sansom — to erect a modern apartment building.

If Campus Apartments generally operates at a higher level, that can't be said for many other developers who have joined the Spruce Hill gold rush. Take a look at the new apartments on 45th Street, between Kingsessing and Woodland Avenues. The developer replaced a mixed group of handsome Victorians and two-story workers housing with a row of slapdash, three-story houses.

Although faced in red brick, they are accessed by industrial-style metal staircases that lead to unpainted, Home Depot-style doors. Mailboxes hang loosely from the railings, while trash pools below. What's most confounding about these student warehouses is that the block faces the rolling green of Clark Park and is steps from well-maintained private homes. But as investors push up prices for rent-producing houses, it becomes harder for homeowners to afford Spruce Hill.

What can the mayor's task force do to save Spruce Hill and other neighborhoods facing intense development pressure?

Paul Steinke, head of the Preservation Alliance, suggests that the city immediately set up a "demolition review" board, similar to those in cities like Chicago and Boston. The board would review demolition permits for any building over a certain age — say 50 years. He has been urging city officials to act now, rather than wait 18 months for the task force to finish its work.

The goal isn't to impede development, but to manage it. Otherwise, come 2019, the preservation task force could find there is little left to preserve.