MAYOR KENNEY released a statement last week that could have melted iron. He was that hot.
The topic was the Toll Brothers' plan to build a mega-apartment building on Jewelers Row after tearing down four of its buildings. In the statement, the mayor sounded like a man who thought he had a verbal agreement with the builder, only to discover he did not.
For one thing, Kenney said he thought Toll Brothers would work to save the facades of the existing buildings on the 700 block of Sansom Street slated for demolition. The builder said it would not. Second, Toll Brothers originally said the structure would be 16-stories tall. Then, Toll suddenly changed that to 29-stories tall.
The project has yet to go before the city's Civic Design Review Board, and Kenney urged Toll Brothers to accept the board's recommendations. To quote the mayor: "If they do not, Toll Brothers will be sending a clear message that they no longer wish to have a productive relationship with the City of Philadelphia."
Jewelers Row is an iconic piece of Philadelphia, with stores centered on the business of purchasing diamonds and precious metals and the manufacture and sale of jewelry.
Although it is iconic, it is not historic - at least in the eyes of the city's Historical Commission, which makes those certifications. It's not the commission's fault. No one bothered to seek certification for Jewelers Row until recently - when it was too late. (With less than a half-dozen staffers and a paltry annual budget, the commission usually relies on independent parties to gather the information needed to prove historical status.)
Had the block been certified, it would have offered some protection against demolition. As a rule of thumb, the city does not allow developers to knock down historically certified buildings, though there are exceptions (see: the former Boyd Theater).
Developers tend to dismiss advocates of preservation as "building huggers" standing in the way of progress. That is nonsense. There is broad public support for preservation and a recognition that what makes Philadelphia unique among American cities is not only its history, but the fact that so much of it is intact.
And keeping it intact makes economic sense. Conventioneers, tourists and people looking for a place to settle down come here because of its historic fabric. They bring money in by the busload.
Yet, we shortchange our assets. Philadelphia is a World Heritage city that has a preservation budget more suited for Topeka, Kansas. We spent $431,000 a year. New Orleans, a city one-quarter our size, spends $885,000 a year. San Antonio, population 1.4 million, spends $1.6 million a year.
Recognizing that need, three Council members recently introduced a bill to add 25 percent to the cost of building permits for work on historical sites. It is estimated it will raise $350,000 a year, with the money going to the Historical Commission.
It may be a noble idea, but it is a bad one. It amounts to punishing the good guys who are trying to preserve these buildings and could discourage people from seeking historic certification.