Skip to content
Real Estate
Link copied to clipboard

Councilman Squilla introduces bills to make it easier to reuse Philadelphia’s historic buildings

Councilman Mark Squilla introduced three bills, including one to eliminate parking requirements, that aim to encourage developers to preserve Philadelphia's historic properties, rather than tear them down.

Developer Eric Blumenfeld walks through the former banquet hall of the Divine Lorraine, a century-old landmark, in July 2015. He opened the building on North Broad Street in 2017 after redeveloping the building into apartments.
Developer Eric Blumenfeld walks through the former banquet hall of the Divine Lorraine, a century-old landmark, in July 2015. He opened the building on North Broad Street in 2017 after redeveloping the building into apartments.Read moreMICHAEL PRONZATO / Staff Photographer

During the last City Council meeting before the summer recess, Councilman Mark Squilla introduced legislation Thursday aimed at incentivizing preservation of historic buildings — something developers often claim can be too difficult and too expensive.

The three bills introduced by Squilla, which came at Mayor Jim Kenney’s request, were introduced roughly two months after Kenney announced a slate of historic preservation priorities. Those ambitions, spurred by recommendations from the task force he formed to study the issue in 2017, range from ideas such as creating an inventory of all Philadelphia’s historic buildings, to procedural steps, such as streamlining the historic nomination and designation process.

Squilla’s bills, however, are designed to reduce the extra planning and money that developers usually must spend when converting historic properties — two obstacles that have in the past made it far easier to demolish a structure and rebuild anew.

The bills, which will likely not be heard in committee until City Council resumes in September, focus on three areas: parking, zoning, and “accessory dwelling units,” such as a “mother-in-law” suite or a basement rental unit in a single-family home. All the bills would apply only to buildings that are designated as historic by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, or buildings that are within a historic district and that contribute, in the commission’s opinion, to the historic district’s character.

The first bill would reduce the number of parking spaces that historic buildings must provide, which, during construction, can add significant extra costs. Now, for example, most multifamily zoning districts require three parking spaces to be built for every 10 units. Squilla’s bill would eliminate parking minimums altogether for historic buildings. Additionally, a developer who instead chooses to expand a historic structure, would be required to build only half of the current parking requirement.

A second bill centers on making it easier to redevelop “special-use” properties, such as churches, theaters, schools, and gymnasiums, that are typically more difficult to restore. The bill would offer a developer rehabilitating one of these properties more flexible zoning options — meaning, for example, that a historic school building that is zoned for single-family housing could, with some regulations and oversight by the Historical Commission, be more easily reused as apartments.

A more practical example: Had Squilla’s bill been in place, the developer weighing whether to redevelop St. Laurentius in Fishtown, a former historic Catholic church, would not have needed to obtain a zoning variance for his proposal to turn the church into apartments. The church was previously zoned to accommodate single-family housing, and the variance that the developer initially received set off a years-long court battle. That battle culminated this year, with City Council passing a bill to make the site’s zoning more dense. The fate of the church, founded in the late 1800s, is still undecided.

Squilla’s final bill focuses on “accessory dwelling units,” or spaces that can be carved out inside single-family houses — offering, for example, a property owner the ability to turn an attic into a rental unit. Squilla’s bill authorizes accessory dwelling units inside historic properties and slightly alters the regulations on how large they can be.

Though still months away from being heard — or even enacted — Squilla’s bills mark significant progress for Philadelphia, which, despite having the second-most number of buildings constructed before 1945 in the U.S., has struggled to encourage developers to restore old and interesting buildings. Only 2.2 percent of all Philadelphia’s are designated as historic, far lower than Boston’s 7.2 percent rate or Washington’s 19.4 percent. And while other cities have passed policies to encourage preservation — Los Angeles, for example, has a program that offers some tax reductions, or abatements, to restore and maintain historic buildings — Philadelphia for years has had no incentives on its books.

“These are a step in the right direction and could be decisive for some developers for some [historic] properties,” Paul Steinke, the executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said. “They won’t change the world, and they’re not as good as a direct financial subsidy ... [but] not having to provide off-street parking can represent significant savings in the cost of a project.”

Looking ahead, Steinke said, he would like to see a bill that would link the 10-year tax abatement to historic preservation, such as one idea, for example, that would treat a full rehab of a historic building as new construction when it comes to property tax purposes. The 10-year tax abatement waives real estate taxes for all property improvements, whether a renovation or new construction. New construction typically receives larger tax reductions than improvements to properties, whether they are historic or not.

Philadelphia, Steinke said, is “a museum of 300 years of architecture. We should be doing more to encourage preservation and adaptive reuse, while welcoming new construction in places that make sense.”

Squilla, who represents the First District, which includes Old City and Society Hill, was not available for an interview, but said in a statement that he was “pleased” to “offer legislation to address the obstacles faced when trying to renovate and re-purpose historical properties.”

Kenney in a statement said: “The work of our Historic Preservation Task Force has shown that sometimes our zoning code gets in the way of protecting our historic resources."