AS A CHILD of Philadelphia, Jim Kenney has a special feeling for the city shared by those born and raised here.
He was in his late 20s when City Council passed the city's first historic preservation law, a forward-looking piece of legislation passed at a time when saving old buildings wasn't on the top of everyone's list. In fact the city was happy to let people - especially developers - to tear those buildings down to make room for what was always called progress.
We got a lot of ugly new buildings out of that deal and lost important pieces of old Philadelphia forever. But times were tough, and almost anyone who wanted to build homes or offices was welcome.
Thirty years later that is no longer the case. In the 80's, preservationists tried to protect vacant buildings from neglect, usually by owners waiting for a big payoff for their meager investments.
Today, we no longer have to beg developers to build in the city, especially Center City and environs, where it seems there is a construction project on every street.
Today, preservationists aren't spending their time defending vacant buildings that may (or may not) have a future. They are trying to protect well-maintained buildings filled with tenants and businesses, from developers who want to tear them down and build denser and bigger condos, apartments and business space. (See the case of Jewelers' Row for an example.)
Kenney knows that a 30-year-old law isn't enough for today's environment. He also knows that Philadelphia has done, at best, a feeble job at preservation - mostly by making the city's Historical Commission live on a starvation budget. The office has only five employees today - same as it did years ago.
The mayor isn't motivated simply by a love of the past. To a very real degree, history is integral to Philadelphia's brand. The 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century neighborhoods that survive largely intact are a draw for tourists and conventions. They are central to our economic life.
Still, because of chronic understaffing, the task of historic preservation goes slowly: There are 16 areas of the city awaiting designation as historic districts. In the '90s, Mayor John Street signed a law to require that the city take a citywide inventory of historic buildings. It was never done.
The mayor and Council have taken a step - call it a baby step - by increasing build fees charged by L&I so the city can hire two historic planners this July.
Last week, Kenney also named a 28-member task force composed of builders, preservationists, architects, elected officials and others to take a close look at how the city can improve the job it does in historic preservation. The group will be headed by Harris Steinberg, executive director of the Lundy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University. The commission will be funded by a $173,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation, which had stopped funding preservation agencies a few years ago. We are glad to see them back in the game.
Clearly, it is not easy to balance the past with the future. No one wants a city stuck in time. But, we also don't want to bulldoze our past. We hope this task force finds a way strike that balance.
The task force will hold a series of public hearings across the city this summer. We hope interested citizens attend.