After Jewelers Row, what's the next preservation tragedy?

What will happen to the 700 block of Chestnut, which features a nearly intact ensemble of fine, commerical buildings, including ones designed by Furness and Cret, but it is zoned for skyscrapers?

Let us now mourn the death of Jewelers Row. No, the storied street of diamond and gold purveyors hasn’t been leveled yet, but hopes for saving the distinctive shopping destination dimmed significantly last month, when Philadelphia’s Historical Commission refused to designate three key buildings.

Technically, the commission said it was taking  90 more days to mull over the proposed designations, as though it had all the time in the world. It doesn't. Toll Bros., which had already obtained a demolition permit,  promptly followed the commission’s nonaction by submitting a plan to the city for a 29-story condo tower. That happens to be twice the height of the version it floated for public consumption this summer. The behemoth, which would stand at least 300 feet tall, will lord over the row’s modest brick-fronted showrooms and workshops, dramatically altering the character of a block that was laid out in 1799.

So, as long as we’re passing around the tissues, let us also take a few minutes to focus on what will likely be the next Jewelers Row-style preservation tragedy. Make no mistake: Many handsome, stoutly-built commercial buildings from the 19th and early 20th century will be lost in the next few years unless officials get serious about maintaining the city’s architectural patrimony. These are exactly the sort of buildings that distinguish Philadelphia from the parade of homogenizing cities around the country.

Along with being America's oldest diamond district, Jewelers Row is part of the colonial-era tourist circuit that includes nearby Independence Hall. Yet, despite its rich heritage, and the many small businesses that populate the street, the row was never recognized as a valuable ensemble worthy of being named a city historic district. Only a handful of its buildings are individually landmarked, and those remain safe.

But the tragedy of Jewelers Row can’t entirely be pinned on the commission; it is really the result of a perfect storm of municipal missteps.

The lack of historic protections was compounded by the fact that the block is zoned, like most of Center City’s commercial streets, for skyscrapers (CMX-5). The Nutter-era Planning Commission had talked about correcting the mistake and down-zoning the block but never got around to it. In this booming real estate market, its skyscraper potential made Jewelers Row’s idiosyncratic buildings more valuable as teardowns than venues of daily commerce.

It was the city’s excessively generous property-tax abatement, however, that provided the match to light the fire. The five structures that Toll plans to demolish will now go from being taxpaying properties that provide affordable work space for small businesses to being buildings that provide exclusive residences for the elite and pay only minimal property tax.

Who will be the next victim?

My money is on a row of early 19th-century buildings on South Ninth Street, now owned by Wills Eye Hospital. Two (Nos. 225 and 227) have been “protected” on the historic register since 1976, yet they have been left to deteriorate in full public view. Last year, the city responded by declaring them officially dangerous. Wills Eye spokeswoman Cathy Moss told me in an email that the hospital was now “in the process of repair.” But it is also no secret that Wills has plans to expand its campus onto the site of the houses. 

Want to bet the Historical Commission will smooth the way?

The commission increasingly behaves as though preserving buildings were a distasteful chore. It not only procrastinated on the Jewelers Row nominations, it did the same with 4046 Chestnut St., a small, handsome Victorian apartment building in West Philadelphia. The delay opened the way for the owner to obtain a demolition permit for both 4046 and its twin next door.

Even when buildings are listed on the historic register, the commission often fails to protect them. The most notorious example was its 2015 decision to allow a developer to raze the Boyd Theater, the most intact of the city’s art deco movie houses.

To be fair, the commission is grossly underfunded. With just five staff members, the agency can barely handle its caseload. It has largely stopped nominating buildings for designation, leaving that work to the Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, and a dedicated band of volunteer architectural historians. It was the alliance’s campaign that made saving Jewelers Row a cause. (The group is still pursuing a legal appeal to stop the Toll project.)

Fearing that Jewelers Row won’t be the last preservation tragedy, the alliance has compiled a list of vulnerable blocks that are over-zoned and under-protected. Most are beloved places that offer a mix of affordable retail space and upper-story apartments. Fabric Row. The Italian Market.

Perhaps the most endangered areas are the 20th-century commercial buildings that dominate both the landscape of eastern Center City and the booming stretch of North Broad near the newly renovated Divine Lorraine.

Long after the real estate boom had taken hold in Center City, its eastern half remained a bit tawdry and forgotten. No more. With the renovation of the Gallery and construction of the massive East Market project, developers are on the prowl for construction sites.

What will happen to the 700 block of Chestnut, which features a nearly intact ensemble of fine, commercial buildings, including ones designed by Furness and Cret, but is zoned for skyscrapers? The threat to Chestnut’s 1500 block is much the same.

Last week, City Council introduced a bill to double the commission’s staffing by imposing user fees on historic-renovation permits. Mayor Kenney campaigned on a promise to beef up preservation, and this bill is the result.

Its purpose is laudable, but the mechanism for increasing the commission’s funding is somewhat unfortunate. In effect, the city will be taxing the very people who preserve old facades for the enjoyment of the public. Those folks are heroes, and the city should look for ways to give them tax incentives, not tax increases. Revising the property-tax abatement to make it more targeted would be one way to encourage preservation.

Along with such carrots, the city needs to stand up to developers when potentially historic properties are threatened. Many cities impose an automatic demolition delay to allow for an emergency designation review. Such a policy would allow Philadelphia to save buildings that haven’t had a chance to go through the designation process.

Of course, the commission will never have time or money to protect everything. That’s why it needs to set priorities. Right now, there is no inventory of worthy buildings or strategy for pursuing designations. A preservation master plan would provide one. 

Making preservation policy effective isn’t just about money. It’s also about resisting the heady buzz of development and focusing on Philadelphia's existing assets. This boom will end someday. Let’s hope we can still recognize our city when it’s over.

Note: This column was corrected to clarify details about Toll's demolition permit and the tax abatement. Homeowners who qualify for the abatement must still pay taxes on the value of the land.