The Philadelphia Historical Commission on Friday approved the demolition of a centuries-old mercantile building along the Front Street corridor after the owner’s engineers and the Department of Licenses and Inspections called the building unsafe.
The commission’s 7-5 vote allows demolition of the historically designated building at 107 Chestnut St., from which bricks from the facade have fallen onto the sidewalk. The commission is requiring the property owner to preserve historic materials and reuse them in future construction at the site; put safeguards in place to protect a historic building attached to it; and reconstruct the structure within a year or else come back to the commission to ask for an extension.
Harvey Spear, the building’s owner, has in the past demolished historic properties in the area. In 2007, L&I deemed two historic buildings opposite 107 Chestnut imminently dangerous, and Spear tore them down and expanded a parking lot. He also tore down a Victorian building, which was not historically designated, at Bainbridge Street and Passyunk Avenue for a Target store that has not been built.
Spear owns the parking lot surrounding the building at 107 Chestnut, which was built in 1840, was individually added to the historical register in 1970, and is part of the Old City Historic District.
Robert Thomas, chair of the commission, said during a meeting that he was "convinced the building is in a very precarious condition, and it needs to come down.”
“What we want to see,” Thomas said, addressing the owner’s lawyer, "is an active, vibrant building, as I’m sure your client does.”
David Orphanides, a lawyer for Spear, said that the building is too dangerous to stay standing longer than necessary and that the owner had no plans to rebuild within a year.
“If the concern is that this is some end-around to create a bigger parking lot, again, any use of the property is going to have to come back through the commission,” he said.
Safety violations issued in February followed previous ones dating back a few years, and some work was done to the building in 2008 and 2013, according to Leonard Reuter, an attorney for the commission. L&I agrees the building is unstable but did not perform an independent analysis of whether it could be stabilized without risk to the public, Reuter said.
Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said the request for demolition was “a clear case of demolition by neglect" by the owner, “practiced so perfectly that we’re now confronted with no choice but to knock this building down 180 years after it was built.” Spear denies that.
“Old City, which should be one of Philadelphia’s premier historic neighborhoods — in fact, the neighborhood where our city began — is now pockmarked with surface parking lots where historic buildings stood until recently,” Steinke said. “And in many cases, not by accident, but by deliberate actions of neglectful property owners.”
If the building is demolished, he said, “we ask that the city and this commission hold its owner’s feet to the fire” to adhere to the requirements the commission approved Friday and to rebuild the building in kind as soon as possible.