A Broken System

(Page 3 of 4)

Obstacles to Widening the List of Protected Properties and Districts

Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Commission’s staff and nominal press contact, said that over “the last several years,” only “maybe six or eight” buildings had actually been nominated internally, with most coming from “interested parties” outside the office.

Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street was nominated for the Historic Register by Andrew Palewski, a neighborhood resident who owns an architectural preservation company.

In exchanges with critics, Farnham has often extolled Philadelphia’s unique ability, granted by the preservation ordinance, to allow individual citizens or organizations to nominate historic buildings or even whole districts for inclusion. But nominating buildings isn’t as easy as just picking addresses of interesting structures.

Strong applications can be over a dozen of pages long, include extensive research and photography, and typically take a month or two to complete. District nominations, including dozens or even hundreds of buildings, can literally take years to assemble.

Even then, nominations have to hold up before the Designation Committee, which reviews and recommends changes to nominations before they go before the full Commission. Drexel University political scientist Richardson Dilworth III, the board’s historian and chairman of the designation committee, said that public and political scrutiny is often the deciding factor, particularly for large districts, only 13 of which have been established since the Commission was given the power to designate entire blocks of the city in 1985. For a list of the 13 districts, 8 of them actual neighborhoods, you’ll have to scroll through the entire historic register (the list on the Historical Commission’s website is wrong).

“It takes a lot of time and energy to designate a district. You’ve got to have the councilperson on board, you’ve got to have the community,” said Dilworth, adding that the dearth of historically certified industrial properties in the city is largely a result of business owners resisting the potential restrictions and costs protection entails (the vast majority of buildings in the register are center city residences and residences in the few historic districts in outlying neighborhoods).

Dilworth also acknowledged that staff limitations played a significant part in the Committee’s review of application. As an example, he cited the proposed Spruce Hill Historic District in West Philadelphia, which has been indefinitely tabled in part because of the sheer workload its addition would have created for the staff.

“In addition to lacking the support of [Councilwoman Blackwell] and several large property owners, more generally there was a structural issue. The Historical Commission faced a real issue in terms of its resources and its ability to regulate the number of properties that would have been the register,” he said, referring to the 42 square block district proposal.

“Every time we have a designation, the question [to the staff] is, ‘Do you think you have the capacity to handle these extra properties?’,” he added.

This is the paradox of the Historical Commission: the more buildings that are added to the register, the less capacity the staff has to nominate more buildings for inclusion.

And the entire process is hampered by lack of information. There has never been a comprehensive survey of Philadelphia’s historic resources. Nominations to the historic register are made on an ad hoc basis, without any system or plan to guide them–and without coordination with citywide or district planning processes.

In short, while in theory anyone can nominate a building, it is a time-intensive process few individuals choose to take on voluntarily and which the Commission staff is often too busy to do themselves. So who submits the majority of nominations? Most come from one of Farnham’s “interested parties,” or rather “party,” the Preservation Alliance.

About the author

Ryan Briggs is a journalist who lives in West Philadelphia. A veteran of several economic development agencies in Philadelphia, Ryan has contributed to the Philadelphia City Paper, Next City and other fine, local publications. Follow him on Twitter at @rw_briggs.

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4 Comments


  1. This and part 2 are fine articles, packed with well researched, supported, and thought-out information.

    I’d like to comment, however, on something more trivial, even ridiculously so: your use of the couplet “an heroic.” Bravo! I guess I’m not the only holdout to use “an” before words beginning with the letter h after all. I just can’t write or speak “a” in such instances. I feel as though I’m hiccupping. Rather like the feeling one has when tripping on a cracked sidewalk.

    My wife thinks I’m crazy. (I very well may be, but for wholly other and additional reasons!) If so, at least I’m not the last lunatic.

    • You may be crazy, but you are not alone – this makes an historic connection…

      Yes, and thanks to Mr Briggs for excellent articles.

  2. You gentlemen are providing long needed look at how the City of Philadelphia treats its historic landscape.

    Ms. Blackwell’s hostility in 2002 can be traced to the Spruce Hill. The Community Association’s nomination to create a local historic district was perceived as a way to give themselves unwarrented power over the residents. People feared this was an attempt to drive out low income and a means to tell owners what colors to paint their houses.

    These fears were not based on facts of law or how the Historical Commission works, but they were real fears. Most Citizens do not know the difference in powers between a local historical Society and the Historical Commission. With the local historical Society and Spruce Hill organizations doing the nominating the local Citizenry saw them as one and the same. Confrontation only fanned the flames and in doing so caused a Citywide halt in district nominations.

  3. I can’t help but think that we’ve driven industry out of the city with burdensome regulations, now we wonder why there are no funds to preserve the past. Surely a factor is moving from the industrial age, but I know it is both difficult and expensive to operate in the city…thus my husband’s employer moved the company outside of the city. You need a tax base to tax, if the businesses leave there isn’t much of a tax base left.

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