6.15.2018

Statement on the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Task Force

By David Brownlee

Image Credit: Hofman & Henon Boyd Theater Phila

We applauded last year when Mayor Kenney created a Historic Preservation Task Force
and asked it to recommend how to avoid losses like the Boyd Theater and the
impending disfigurement of Jewelers Row. But the clock is now ticking, and the Task
Force’s first report, belatedly issued in March, only surveyed existing conditions. That
was all it was supposed to do, but we are among those who feel that it didn’t quite
capture the magnitude of the challenges and the opportunities that face this big, historic
city.

 

A lot is at stake. The Task Force needs to paint a convincing picture of a historic
preservation system that works for everyone: protecting the iconic character of diverse
neighborhoods and making historic preservation part of the “value added” in
Philadelphia’s hot developers market.

 

The Task Force has created four subcommittees to make recommendations for the final
report, which is due in December. While we worry about this fragmentation of the
process, we offer here some suggestions for each committee, in the hope of
encouraging their work—and of provoking more public discussion than we’ve heard to
date.

 

SURVEY HISTORIC RESOURCES: What do we protect?

 

We were America’s largest colonial city and her mightiest industrial city in the nineteenth
century, so we know that we have vast historic resources. But we don’t know as much
as we should about exactly what we have, and we know the least about the sites and
buildings that may now be most at risk—those outside of Center City.

 

We need a comprehensive inventory like the one Los Angeles is now completing. Theirs
is called SurveyLA, and it provides basic historic
information about 880,000 properties across the 500 square miles of the city.
Philadelphia has much more history and needs to know at least as much about itself as
a starting point for deciding what to protect and how.

 

This will be a huge project, and like LA, we’ll need to put together public funds,
foundation support, and the research power of our great universities to get it done.

 

REGULATIONS FOR PRESERVATION OUTCOMES: How do we protect it?

 

As we learn more about what we have, we must develop a strategic plan to protect what
we value and serve every neighborhood equally. This will require a larger Historical
Commission staff, capable of processing the designation and managing the permitting
process for the individual buildings and historic districts that are likely to be identified
throughout the city by the survey. And it will demand close coordination with the City
Planning Commission, augmenting the historic preservation component of each district
plan in the Commission’s “Philadelphia2035” masterplan for the city.

 

To preserve the distinctive character of Philadelphia’s scores of rowhouse
neighborhoods, new tools will be needed. In addition to traditional individual and district
designations, we should utilize the character-preserving powers of the zoning code and
make wider use of Neighborhood Conservation Overlays. But care must be taken lest
some areas receive second-class protection.
Because the inventory project will take years, while the development boom places every
unprotected property at risk today, some interim form of protection must be developed.
Like some cities, we could delay every proposed demolition of an older building while its
historic value is assessed. Or (probably more palatably) such delay and evaluation might
be limited to properties where the developer is taking advantage of City-provided
incentives, including the tax abatement, the Land Bank, and PIDC programs.

 

INCENTIVES FOR PRESERVATION: Who will pay for it?

 

We must provide financial incentives for those who preserve the buildings that benefit us
all. The use of the diminished but still valuable state and federal tax programs must be
encouraged at every opportunity. A revolving fund should be established, perhaps under
the oversight of a non-profit organization, to help low- and moderate-income residents
maintain their homes. The “façade easement” program of the Preservation Alliance,
which gives tax benefits to those who voluntarily agree to preserve their buildings,
should be expanded, and TDRs (Transfer of Development Rights) should be reinstated
to compensate historic property owners who are not allowed to erect the largest building
that the zoning code permits. Most importantly, real estate taxes and the real estate tax
abatement program (if retained) should be adjusted to offer targeted incentives to those
who invest in historic properties.

 

EDUCATION/OUTREACH: What stories can we tell?

 

The value of historic preservation can be argued on purely financial terms. But for most
of us, it is a matter of culture as much as economics. As our understanding of our city’s
history expands, we must share it with everyone. A good place to start would be the
schools: all students should learn about their city and about their neighborhood from
their teachers. Classes can then move outdoors, to learn more from the sites and
buildings that we preserve.

 

David B. Brownlee
Co-Vice Chair, Design Advocacy Group