As local voters and candidates size each other up this spring, both groups should give thought to our city's historic preservation policies.
Maybe you live near 40th and Sansom, Marlborough and Belgrade, Third and Moyamensing, or Ninth and Cambria and have watched the demolition of an elegant stone church. Maybe you live in Roxborough and have seen Victorian mansions disappear. Or maybe you follow the work of photographers such as Vincent Feldman and realize that just about every part of our city is rapidly surrendering the sorts of local landmarks other municipalities strive valiantly to save.
If this escalating trend alarms you, take heart. Solutions are at hand and an election year is the perfect time to explore them.
Fund the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC). The agency's funding has remained stagnant at just under $400,000 for seven years. That puts our centuries-old "City of Firsts" behind Baltimore ($543,630), Phoenix ($785,000), and San Antonio ($1.6 million). Such meager rations keep the PHC from carrying out many of its basic functions. A bill proposed by then-Councilman James Kenney last fall was a good start. Although it needs adjustment, his proposal rightly tied increased funding to increased productivity, which is essential. Here's to similar initiatives from any candidate.
Reestablish the independence of the PHC. Preservation and economic development are sometimes compatible, and enlightened cities such as Pittsburgh have put this convergence at the center of their policies. However, the two agendas are not identical. and sometimes they conflict. Putting the PHC under the deputy mayor for economic development, as the Nutter administration has done, amounts to a thumb on the scale, most notably in cases involving "economic hardship" and "public interest." This likely (and certainly perceived) conflict of interest, evident in a slew of recent high-profile decisions, has eroded public confidence in the PHC. It must stop.
Undertake a comprehensive survey of Philadelphia's historic resources. Every month, we lose important buildings simply because they are not on the city's radar. This is shameful, especially for a city that trades heavily on its past when wooing tourists and conventions.
Build preservation incentives into public policy. As currently configured, the city's tax structure, zoning code, and land bank do nothing to encourage historic preservation. Most Philadelphians see little or no advantage to having their properties certified as historic, either individually or in districts. This all-stick-no-carrot approach entrenches the public perception of the PHC as the "taste police," micromanaging molding profiles or roof decks in upscale neighborhoods while forsaking major resources everywhere else. Other cities have offered worthwhile incentives to encourage preservation. Ours should, too.
Give Licenses and Inspections the resources to deal with derelict buildings. Right now, L&I can issue citations and, ultimately, tear down buildings it deems in violation of city code. This process has been poorly administered in recent years. But the tool kit itself should be revamped. Cities such as New York have the power to repair decaying properties and bill owners for the work. Pennsylvania has an existing conservatorship law that gives affected parties a tool for dealing with neglected properties. These types of proactive approaches should be implemented in Philadelphia.
We are not suggesting that future administrations should attempt to save every old building within city limits. However, as the real estate market picks up, not knowing which buildings are worth saving and not providing incentives as well as regulations for doing so, is like flying in a storm without instruments. Our historic buildings and neighborhoods are important assets. They deserve better.
Aaron Wunsch is an assistant professor in the graduate program in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania
Caroline E. Boyce is executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia