Suggestions for saving Philly's heritage while guiding its future

I crossed paths with Paul Steinke for the first time in a long time at the topping-off ceremonies for One Riverside in late May.

Steinke's curriculum vitae is as long as my arm, but for several years he was general manager of Reading Terminal Market and was instrumental in turning it into arguably one of the best of its kind in the nation.

Steinke told me he was taking over as executive director of the Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, an organization with which I have had a relationship for many years - 25, at least.

So it didn't surprise me when he responded to a column I'd written on a speech to the Business Industry Association of Philadelphia by Harris Steinberg, executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University.

In that speech, Steinberg asked that we find a way to embrace "the promise of Philadelphia's future while honoring its past."

That means a coherent, citywide preservation policy, and Steinke said after the column was published that the Preservation Alliance had also been calling for a citywide preservation plan for many years.

"We are hopeful that under the Kenney administration we might actually be able to get it done, especially given the way that the Jewelers Row crisis has focused attention on how terribly under-protected our city's historic built environment really is," he said.

The alliance has a six-point plan. It notes that while the city is experiencing a level of development not seen in 50 years, "this activity comes at a steep and irreversible cost: the demolition of key parts of the city's historic fabric and its diverse architectural resources."

The first of the six points recommends adequate funding of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which has an annual budget of less than $500,000 - an "allocation that compares unfavorably with most peer cities," turning it into primarily a reactive, regulatory body, the group said.

Another point is adopting a demolition-delay ordinance.

"Demolition review, or demolition delay, is a process wherein relevant municipal agencies are granted an opportunity to evaluate a building's historical significance prior to issuing a demolition permit," the coalition said.

The typical threshold is a building that is either 50 years old or older and is listed on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

The length of the delay would vary but, typically, would exceed 60 days.

Zoning "remapping" is another recommendation. As City Council and the Planning Commission continue to pursue remapping of the entire city, "more careful attention must be paid to the existing historic resources on the ground and the potential impacts of aspirational zoning," the alliance said.

Historic designation of individual properties and inclusion in a local historic district are often perceived as a burden to property owners.

A partial district would address those concerns, focusing primarily on the preservation of scale and historic character, while still regulating demolition and new construction.

There are currently few economic or procedural incentives for the preservation and rehabilitation of historic properties in Philadelphia.

The alliance suggests that something be done, citing Baltimore's program offering a 10-year tax credit for both homeowners and commercial property owners within the city's more than 70 historic districts.

Last, but not least, is a citywide survey of historic resources, "a document that would help guide future development initiatives and preservation best practices," the group recommended.

aheavens@phillynews.com

215-854-2472

@alheavens

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