Philadelphia is home to more historic buildings than any other city in America except for New York, yet it has always struggled to hold onto its incredible architectural inheritance. The challenges have worsened in recent years, thanks to a sustained building boom and the way the 10-year property tax abatement favors new construction over renovation.
Recognizing the problem, Mayor Kenney came into office pledging to address the growing crisis. The proposed demolition of Jewelers Row upped the ante. He eventually formed the Historic Preservation Task Force to study new approaches. Now, 18 months after the members began work, they have issued a report with a long list of suggested fixes.
Many of their proposals require nothing more than making procedural changes at the Historical Commission and other city agencies, and creating a “preservation-first” culture. Others need City Council approval. Unfortunately, there is no time frame for implementing any of it, and the report is unlikely to set the hearts of preservationists on fire. Because the report is long, dense, and full of wonky minutiae (negating the task force’s own recommendation to make historical preservation more accessible to the average citizen), we have sifted out the core ideas.
1. The Big Idea: Make a list
Although Philadelphia’s preservation law goes back to 1955, the city has never created a comprehensive list of historic buildings worth preserving. As a result, there is nothing to stop developers from demolishing ones that are good candidates for designation.
The task force’s signature recommendation calls for creating an inventory of worthy buildings that eventually could be nominated for historic status. The list would be the first step toward a “demolition delay” procedure, since no building on the list could be torn down without a thorough review of its merits.
Implementing the recommendation would require city funding for a consultant to prepare the list. Council also would have to approve the appropriation.
2. The Other Big Idea: Create three types of historic districts
One of the best ways to preserve Philadelphia’s architectural character is by creating neighborhood-based historic districts. But some Council members have blocked the districts, claiming that the requirements for property owners are too onerous. That’s one reason that Spruce Hill, one of the most intact Victorian streetcar neighborhoods in America, has no demolition protections.
To get around Council’s resistance, the task force suggests creating three categories of historic districts: the current type, with strict oversight; a district in which owners would be given more leeway to modify their property; and a “lighter regulation” district with a process to oversee new construction and demolitions.
Given that “lighter regulation” would enable owners to use nonhistoric materials such as stucco and siding, it’s not clear how light the city can go and still call it preservation.
3. Find financial incentives to encourage people to preserve instead of demolish
One of the complaints about Philadelphia’s preservation law is that it demands financial sacrifices from owners but offers little compensation to offset the cost of saving older buildings. The task force didn’t come up with any ideas for making direct city payments, but it does suggest ways that property owners can save money through existing programs.
The most meaningful would be a change in the tax abatement to reward people who renovate historic buildings. They would receive an abatement on the full value of the property, rather than on just the renovated portion. This recommendation could make renovation more competitive with new construction.
Another important incentive would require tax officials to lower the assessments of historic buildings if designation causes their property values to decline. It’s significant that many of the biggest preservation saves in the city have been larger buildings that qualified for federal historic tax credits, including the Hale Building and the Met opera house.
4. End grade inflation for designated buildings
Philadelphia is in an odd situation in which some of its most important buildings have no protection while relatively minor ones are listed as significant. The task force recommends a review of all designations to ensure buildings are appropriately graded.
While this is a good idea in theory, it could be tricky in practice. I can already imagine some developers plotting ways to downgrade their properties so they can be modified. Proceed with caution, or this proposal could become a fast track to demolition.
5. Correct zoning for historic areas
The reason for the debacle on Jewelers Row wasn’t entirely the street’s lack of historic protection. The street became vulnerable because recent zoning changes had made the properties more valuable as tear-downs. The report recommends reviewing the zoning classifications of historic properties to prevent the same thing from happening again.