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Preservationists want historic districts. Residents fear the cost. Will West Philly’s Overbrook Farms get designation?

The proposed historic district has been a contentious topic in this idyllic West Philadelphia neighborhood for nearly 15 years.

Homes on the 6300 block of Overbrook Avenue in Overbrook Farms in West Philadelphia. The neighborhood is known for its big and grassy lots — a stark difference from the many dense rowhouse neighborhoods that define Philadelphia.
Homes on the 6300 block of Overbrook Avenue in Overbrook Farms in West Philadelphia. The neighborhood is known for its big and grassy lots — a stark difference from the many dense rowhouse neighborhoods that define Philadelphia.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

The front lawns on the 6300 block of Overbrook Avenue are spacious and green — big enough for kids to run and play, yet with space to spare for well-tended shrubs and trees.

They sit before rows of two- and three-story homes that boast American flags and wrought-iron fences. Cars park in spacious driveways, and rocking chairs fill porches. Located just a stone’s throw away from City Avenue, a dividing line between Philadelphia and Lower Merion Township, the verdant block could be mistaken for part of the suburbs nearby.

Yet the 6300 block of Overbrook Avenue, like many around it, has belonged to Philadelphia since the area was established in the late 1800s. Known as Overbrook Farms, the neighborhood was built as a community for the rich, counting governors, mayors, stockbrokers, and Albert C. Barnes (of the Barnes Foundation) as residents. The idea was to establish an entire neighborhood — not just a few homes — along the Pennsylvania Railroad line, enabling residents to get some distance from Philadelphia’s industrial centers, while still being only a train ride away. It was, according to ads at the time, a “suburb de luxe."

Today, Overbrook Farms boasts no wealthy tycoons — though it’s home to at least one former mayor, W. Wilson Goode Sr. — yet many of the original homes remain. For nearly 15 years, residents have wrestled with the question of whether that’s enough to designate the neighborhood a historic district, a collection of properties that receive, depending on how they are viewed, additional protection — or scrutiny — from the city. Many residents worry that having to comply with the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s architectural oversight will require that they shell out more money for renovations and maintenance. Others say it’s an important tool to help preserve the neighborhood’s architecture and history.

Since a nomination to designate Overbrook Farms was first introduced in 2004, neighbors have protested, stormed meetings, and, according to some accounts, called those who backed the designation “Nazis.” Historic preservation advocates have tried to persuade skeptics by arguing that historic districts can boost property values and revitalize neighborhoods. Plus, with more than 20 architectural styles in the neighborhood — including, predominately, Colonial or Tudor Revival — Overbrook Farms, advocates argue, is a prime historic district candidate.

But residents may soon get clarity on the neighborhood’s status, with the Philadelphia Historical Commission expected to vote this month on the proposed Overbrook Farms Historic District. The vote follows an Oct. 16 recommendation by a Historical Commission committee, which said the nomination met historic protection criteria.

The battle in this West Philadelphia community underscores the simmering tensions in the city and beyond, ones that typically pit preservationists against development advocates amid a nationwide building boom. Philadelphia has repeatedly seen historic buildings fall because of development pressure in today’s red-hot market — a problem that is exacerbated, preservationists say, by a low proportion of historic protections. Just 2.2% of Philadelphia’s buildings are listed on the city’s historic register, compared with an average among 50 cities of 4.3%.

But in Overbrook Farms — as in so many other areas in Philadelphia — the fight also centers on the potential economic implications. Many of the neighborhood’s middle-class residents who purchased homes before a district was discussed say historic regulations are more than they bargained for.

“We have a terra-cotta roof, and if the roof went, I don’t know if we’d buy a terra-cotta roof again,” said Anthony Cianfrani, a lawyer who purchased a home in Overbrook Farms in 2003. “Maybe we would, and maybe we wouldn’t — but price would matter.”

“It will impose a hardship on the people in the neighborhood who cannot afford to make their alterations in compliance with the requirements of the Historical Commission,” he continued.

Philadelphia has 23 historic districts under the purview of the Historical Commission, the 14-member appointed body that regulates exterior appearances of designated properties. Most districts share common geography — districts, for example, exist for Old City and Rittenhouse Square — but they can also be created for structures that have similar architectural features. Earlier this year, for example, the Historical Commission approved the creation of the “Cast Iron Subway Entrances Thematic District,” which granted protection to several dozen transit entryways across the city.

The designation was one of seven new districts added in the last two years. Even so, preservationists argue, Philadelphia doesn’t have enough.

Properties inside historic districts must receive approval for exterior alterations — including demolition — from the commission, with members offering a more careful review of buildings that are deemed “significant” or “contributing." “Non-contributing” buildings are examined more broadly to determine whether a change will “affect the district as a whole."

Local historic districts are different from national ones, which can provide tax credits for rehabilitation projects and require cooperation from a majority of homeowners before a district is formed. Local districts, in contrast, are decided by the Historical Commission after multiple hearings. Residents can protest — and surely, they do — but, ultimately, the panel of architects, preservationists, and developers makes the final call.

The proposed Overbrook Farms Historic District would contain 501 properties, according to the nomination, and stretch roughly from 58th to 66th Streets, and from City Avenue to the rear property lines of Woodbine Avenue.

The neighborhood has been a National Historic District since 1985. The current application before the city was filed by the Historical Commission itself.

Throughout a 1,200-page nomination, the Historical Commission argues that Overbrook Farms is important because it “documents a critical moment in Philadelphia’s evolution, when the city reached its zenith as an industrial, commercial, and financial center."

“Developed by bankers and designed by architects and engineers,” the nomination states, “Overbrook Farms was a complex machine intended to rationally, efficiently, and scientifically satisfy the physical and psychological needs of its upper-middle and upper-class residents, who had created the dirty, chaotic city but did not want to live in it.”

Overbrook Farms began in 1892, when Anthony J. Drexel and members of the Drexel Syndicate — a group of investors tied to Drexel & Co., one of the world’s most powerful banks — purchased a swath of vacant land. They hired the firm of Wendell & Smith to develop the neighborhood. Prominent architects, including Horace Trumbauer, were tapped to design homes.

Before long, the neighborhood was known for its pristine streets, as well as a water distribution system that was separate from the city’s. During the typhoid epidemic of 1899, the developers boasted about Overbrook Farms residents’ ability to “congratulate themselves on having pure water to drink.”

“Hence an immunity from the anxiety felt in other parts of the city,” an advertisement read.

Today, the median household income of the area surrounding the neighborhood is roughly $63,000, U.S. Census data show, and nearly 43% of the area is black. More than half of the homes are estimated to be owner-occupied.

The first attempt to designate Overbrook Farms was in 2004, but it was ultimately tabled after a heated battle to create a historic district in Spruce Hill, also in West Philadelphia. Despite a push by neighborhood groups to have Spruce Hill’s Victorian homes protected, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, citing opposition from other groups, introduced a bill that would have given only City Council power to designate districts.

The bill ultimately failed, but, preservation advocates say the effects were significant: After the Old City Historic District was designated in 2003, only one other district — the Greenbelt Knoll district in Northeast Philadelphia — was designated over the next five years.

Spruce Hill remains unprotected.

A push to designate Overbrook Farms was launched again a few years ago — and today has the support of Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who represents the neighborhood. Though the neighborhood hasn’t seen the same development pressure as other areas, Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said “there have been indications that developers are looking more closely at Overbrook Farms."

For years, the Preservation Alliance offered grants to low- and moderate-income homeowners in historic properties to help pay for repairs that meet Historical Commission guidelines. But the program, funded largely with city money, ended several years ago.

Steinke said he believes that restoring a similar fund could make districts more palatable for homeowners and hopes that a soon-to-be-introduced City Council bill would create a similar program. Councilman Mark Squilla’s office is currently drafting legislation to create a Historic Preservation Fund — a recommendation from the city’s Historic Preservation Task Force.

The bill, his office said, will be introduced later this year.