Mayor Kenney is convening a task force of more than two dozen developers, preservationists, city officials, and academics to devise ways of protecting Philadelphia’s historic character as rapidly encroaching development threatens its oldest buildings.
The group will forge strategies for cataloging the city’s historic assets and will devise incentives to encourage buildings’ reuse, while promoting the upsides of preservation to developers and residents, according to a news release on the task force’s formation, scheduled to be announced Thursday at City Hall.
The move comes amid a wave of development that has resulted in the loss of historically designated buildings, such as the Boyd Theatre movie palace near Rittenhouse Square, and that is imperiling properties in the path of planned construction, including a large swath of the storied Jewelers Row.
“We’re one of the oldest cities in America, and we have a lot of historic assets,” Anne Fadullon, Philadelphia’s planning and development director, said in an interview. “We are now experiencing development pressure, and some of our resources are threatened by that.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation will provide technical assistance to the task force, which will be chaired by Drexel University urban scholar Harris Steinberg. A $183,750 grant from the William Penn Foundation will support its operations, including the hiring of a project manager.
The task force begins its work after City Council raised fees charged by the Department of Licenses and Inspections. The additional revenue will enable the city Historical Commission to add two staff members starting July 1, obviating the need for new fees that had been planned in legislation that never advanced after being introduced late last year.
Together, the moves are part of a “broad-based strategy” by Kenney to make good on commitments he made as a councilman and mayoral candidate to protect historic assets, Fadullon said.
“Our historic-preservation ordinance is more than 30 years old and was written when Philadelphia was a very different place,” Kenney said in a statement. “We need to look at preservation for a city that is adding people and jobs, while still keeping in mind the resource constraints we face.
Task force member Seri Worden, a New York-based senior field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said her group will lend its mapping and data expertise to the initiative, while serving as a conduit for preservation approaches used by other cities.
Those could include easing zoning constraints for developers wishing to reuse aged buildings and delays on issuing demolition permits for buildings older than 50 years so their significance can be evaluated, she said.
Task force chair Steinberg, who directs Drexel's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, said he sees parallels between the initiative and the Delaware River waterfront-planning project he led in the mid-2000s.
The eventual upshot of that effort was a new riverfront zoning overlay that encouraged open space and pedestrian-friendly development, which is given some credit for the interest that private developers, such as New York’s Durst Organization, are showing in the area.
“Parks and open space and well-designed streets are all part of a well-designed public realm that gives value to the private sector,” Steinberg said. “Preservation is part of that equation.”
The task force will begin its work in June and will issue interim and draft reports in spring and fall 2018, with a final report to be released in December 2018. Its meetings will be held across the city and will be open to the public.
Fadullon said she hopes the process yields lessons that Philadelphia, the only city in the United States selected to be a World Heritage City, can pass along to others facing similar development pressures.
Philadelphia can help “create a toolbox for historic preservation in cities that are experiencing a resurgence of development, and need to promote that development, but also need to preserve the assets that make them unique places to be,” she said.