Philadelphia's preservation reform effort has lost its way | Inga Saffron

The weaknesses of Philadelphia’s preservation law can be seen in Wills Eye Hospital’s treatment of a row of 19th-century houses on Ninth Street. Wills has badly neglected all five houses, including three listed on the historic register. The demolition of the two at the end (which are not designated) seems to be the first step in creating a site for a new building.

Of all the sleight-of-hand maneuvers available to modern politicians, nothing requires so little effort, or offers so much in return, as the task force. Convene a group to study an issue, and difficult policy questions will vanish before your constituents’ very eyes.

So it goes with historic preservation in Philadelphia.

Having campaigned as a committed preservationist, Mayor Kenney came into office in 2016 promising to step up protections for the city’s stock of old buildings. But it wasn’t long before the demolitions started piling up: Mount Sinai Hospital. Society Hill Playhouse. The old Please Touch Museum. Then Toll Bros. announced a plan to erase a chunk of Jewelers Row and insert a generic glass tower into that handsome and intact 19th-century block. Kenney tried at first to publicly shame the developer. When that didn’t work, he formed a task force.

Ten months into its 18-month assignment, the group appears to be stuck in neutral. Based on interviews with a dozen people who sit on the task force, or who have closely followed its plodding course, the group began to flounder early, after its paid facilitator, Karen Black, clashed with the representative from the Department of Planning and Development. The task force chairman, Harris Steinberg, has often been absent from meetings because of health issues, leaving the group without a strong manager.

Camera icon Peter Woodall
The Church of the Nativity, built in 1844 by the celebrated Philadelphia architect Napoleon LeBrun at 11th and Mount Vernon, is one of many stone churches to have been torn down during the building boom.

The lack of leadership has been compounded by the group’s unwieldy size — 33 members — and the ideological differences among its diverse membership. The divide between the ardent preservationists and the pro-development faction is so deep that the members have been unable to agree on the problem that they are supposed to fix, according to several people interviewed.

The result of the disarray can be seen in the task force’s recent “white paper,” the first of three that it plans to issue. It is as weak and colorless as the name suggests.

The report barely acknowledges that Philadelphia’s traditional redbrick fabric and fine institutional buildings are experiencing an unprecedented wave of destruction, induced by a decadelong building boom. Instead, its 18 pages are devoted to a matter-of-fact recitation of the existing laws and programs related to preservation in Philadelphia.

“I could have had two interns compile this in two weeks,” complained one pro-preservation task force member. (Like most people I interviewed, he asked not to be identified because task force members are not authorized to speak to the press.)  “I’m getting the feeling that the task force was organized to provide political cover, not effective recommendations.” At the group’s most recent meeting, he noted, each member was asked to state what preservation means to them. That’s the kind of team-building exercise that usually occurs on Day One, not 10 months in.

Camera icon Inga Saffron
The Please Touch Museum, formerly housed in the former Wallace Storage & Carpet building on 21st Street, was demolished in 2016 and is now being replaced by townhouses.

The absence of a clear point of view in the white paper is striking. After slogging through its bureaucratic description of the current preservation process, I had a small epiphany: The report never once mentions by name an actual building that has been destroyed, threatened, or saved in the last few years. You never get a sense of what is happening on the ground, in the neighborhoods that struggle daily with the loss of familiar touchstones as the city undergoes what feels like a warp-speed reinvention.

The report is also strikingly naive about why preservation is such a mess. The authors repeatedly praise Philadelphia’s preservation ordinance as a model, without ever acknowledging that politics and implementation failures are the real cause of the dysfunction.

Camera icon Inga Saffron
Despite its being one of the most intact Victorian neighborhoods in America, West Philadelphia’s Spruce Hill neighborhood has been blocked by City Council from becoming a historic district.

Take the matter of historic districts, which the report notes have long been considered an effective means to protect neighborhoods from random destruction. Philadelphia was once a leader in using such districts to stabilize historic neighborhoods, but for more than a decade, City Council has blocked the creation of districts in Spruce Hill, Washington Square West, and elsewhere. Had the Washington Square district been in place, Toll’s proposed condo tower would be subject to full Historical Commission oversight, rather than a nonbinding review by the Civic Design board.

The report also blithely asserts that Philadelphia’s “affirmative maintenance” program helps prevent “demolition by neglect.” Maybe the task force should make a field trip to Ninth and Locust where Wills Eye Hospital — run by a city-owned trust — has cynically allowed a row of historically certified 19th-century buildings to deteriorate. Wills is demolishing the two noncertified houses at the end of the row, with the aim of creating a large building site. It seems only a matter of time before the hospital cites the preservation law’s hardship clause and claims that the three listed buildings are too far gone to salvage. Whether this row deserves to be preserved is a question worth asking, but clearly the Historical Commission has not been effective at staving off willful neglect.

It wasn’t just the threatened destruction of Jewelers Row that prompted Kenney to form the task force. As a result of several high-profile losses, one of the city’s best known preservation activists, Oscar Beisert, nominated the city for the National Trust’s annual list of 11 Most Endangered Places. Philadelphia officials responded by inviting the National Trust to be part of the process of rethinking the city’s approach to preservation.

The trust’s representative, Seri Worden, acknowledged that some task force members were disappointed with the white paper, but she said she was confident that the next two reports will have more meat. “I’m hopeful that we will have implementable recommendations and not just 10 bullet points,” Worden said.

Paul Chrystie, a spokesman for the city, also defended the decision to use the first white paper as a way of laying out the basics for the task force. “In a city as diverse and complex as Philadelphia, bringing all views to the table by definition requires a large group,” he wrote in an email.  “We are pleased that we are obtaining a diversity of opinions, and we believe that those diverse opinions will strengthen the upcoming review of best practices and ultimately the task force’s final recommendations.”

Camera icon Howard Haas
Derelict for decades, the former Keystone National Bank, designed by Willis G. Hale in 1887, is one of the city’s recent preservation success stories. The building at Chestnut and Juniper was faithfully renovated by Brickstone Realty and will be converted to offices.

Several members of the task force — both preservationists and development advocates — also told me they remain hopeful that the task force will come up with meaningful reforms, such as a tiered system of designation and new financial incentives to encourage preservation. Most seem to agree there needs to be a citywide building survey so the Historical Commission can establish a priority list. Overall, however, the pro-development faction seemed far happier with the white paper than the preservationists.

There is no doubt that the task force has a tough job. Philadelphia has more structures built before 1945 than any U.S. city besides New York. Deciding which ones should be saved is highly subjective. No one would dispute that Philadelphia needs to create modern buildings in order to grow and prosper.

But maintaining the eclectic rhythms and textures of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods is crucial to maintaining our identity as a city. This is especially true now that developer architecture is making so many American cities look alike. Philadelphia, by sheer luck, has managed to retain its authenticity and unique appearance in a homogenizing world. No matter how many new projects go up here, the buildings from Philadelphia’s past are the reason it has a future.