Editor’s Note: Last Tuesday, May 31, on the eve of taking over from Caroline Boyce as executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Paul Steinke sat down with Hidden City’s editorial team to discuss his plans for the activist group, which in recent years has seen its funding slashed and its influence diminish–all the while Philadelphia has lost a considerable number of historically significant buildings, including churches, factories, and theaters and retail stores. Recently, the Architect’s Newspaper outlined Philadelphia’s preservation crisis; in an op-ed on Wednesday in these pages, activist Oscar Beisert wrote, “Make no mistake, there is a preservation crisis in Philadelphia.”
Steinke was the founding director of the University City District and longtime manager of the National Historic Landmark Reading Terminal Market. In that role, he discovered ways to protect the market’s core traditions, while upgrading the building and introducing contemporary uses.
The conversation with Steinke comes as the Preservation Alliance and Hidden City, both non-profit organizations (that have worked together since the first Hidden City Festival in 2009), continue longtime discussions over a joint operating agreement that would make this website a key program of the Alliance. Whatever agreement is eventually reached will protect the editorial independence of the Hidden City Daily and maintain its broad focus beyond the singular issue of historic preservation.
Nathaniel Popkin: I would like to start with something that Pete raised to me on the phone this morning, I think it’s a good place to start. And that is, to get a sense from you of what you think it means to be a preservation advocacy organization. What does that mean for what you do, and how you execute the fight?
Paul Steinke: Fair enough. Yeah, so I’ve been on the board of the Alliance since its founding in 1996. I left the board from ‘06 to ‘13, during which time I was on the board of Preservation Pennsylvania, but I remained a supporter of the Alliance throughout that time. So, I’ve been active with the organization, pretty much, for the last 20 years. So, the name of the organization is the Preservation Alliance, and I’ve long thought that our strength is the extent to which we can build support for the movement, and create alliances with people and organizations that share some or all of our goals. And so my main goal, in taking on this role, will be to build and strengthen alliances with neighborhood groups, individuals, and developers–preservation-friendly developers.
But not just the obvious people, but the city’s power structure. Just like when I was with the Reading Terminal Market, I wanted the city not only to use the market, but to respect it as a destination that is an important part of economic and cultural landscape of the city, I want the city to do the same thing for preservation. That it’s an important part of the economic, social, cultural development of the city, not just something to give lip service to, not just something that has to do with Independence Hall and the other acknowledged landmarks, but that, in Philadelphia, we have a unique opportunity to incorporate preservation with new development, and we’ve done it for decades, to create a unique and uniquely appealing city.
Peter Woodall: Some of the most committed, proactive and effective preservationists in the city have experienced what I’d characterize as a loss of faith in the Preservation Alliance over the past few years. They feel that the Alliance has been more focused on fundraising than advocacy, producing little in the way of tangible results at a time of soaring development pressure. What do you think of that characterization? Is it a perception problem or is there some substance there? How would you go about regaining the confidence of this group?
PS: The Alliance suffered a pair of terrible blows in the past few years: the Great Recession, and a big change in the priorities of local foundations, which no longer provide operating support to history and preservation nonprofits. The Alliance was brought low by these developments. Staffing was slashed, and a greater proportion of staff time was devoted to fundraising by necessity just to keep the doors open. So there’s no doubt that it affected the organization’s effectiveness.
Meanwhile, the city’s official preservation apparatus has not expanded to meet the challenge either, hampered by stagnant funding in a city government that still lives on the financial edge, underfunding nearly every operating department in comparison to peer cities. I went into this with my eyes open. I am hoping to revive a true alliance of preservation advocates that will pool our energy and resources to make a dent in the crisis now spreading throughout the city.
NP: Who do you think are the natural, untapped allies of the Alliance?
PS: I definitely think that we can raise the profile of preservation with City Council, and we can take advantage of the fact that we have a new mayor and a new administration to insert preservation into the thinking and the conversation there in a bigger way. The development community, we’ve always had preservation-oriented developers in the city. I think we have the opportunity to make that case to more of them and increase the support there.
NP: Can developers be your allies in that? Is there any kind of competitive nature to the development community that would challenge each other to do something better?
PS: Well I think we need to make known the advantages of preservation-oriented development, the historic tax credit. So let’s get more buildings on the national register, so that they can be re-developed. For example, the school buildings of Erwin Catherine, some of which are on the national register, but not all, and some of them are in neighborhoods where they are becoming more and more logical conversions to apartments. So that’s a way that we can strike a blow for preservation. Let’s make the economic case for why preservation makes sense in more cases than, perhaps, is believed today. So yeah, I do think developers are a major source of potential support that may not be there today.
NP: The question of going to Council and being able to feel like what you say in Council, or to the administration, matters seems like it would require feeling like you have a broad-based constituency, a grassroots constituency behind you to say “well look, all of these people want it, they demand it, Just like the bicycle people and the schools people, and all of these other different identity groups.” Do you have that?
PS: We don’t have it to, I think, the extent that we need it. You know, as one of the top two or three big historic cities in the country, we don’t have a cohesive preservation movement, as I think we need. There’s a lot of sympathetic people out there, there are a lot of people who pursue preservation in their own ways, but we haven’t come together as a movement nearly as strongly as other groups like schools and bicycles and parks have done, and that we have the potential with it. So that’s why, I say, we start with the name, an Alliance, and make it more of an alliance. Let’s spread our wings, and try to bring more people in with us to articulate these goals and objectives. We have a long way to go.
Bradley Maule: To what extent do you think the Young Friends can contribute to something like that? And then also, just using the recent example, the neighborhood preservation alliances sort of coalesced around a single issue in Fishtown, which really has sort of gained some traction there. Those seem like the obvious types of alliances you’re talking about, but I think that, with the Young Friends in particular, how do you see what they do expanding, starting tomorrow?
PS: Well as far as the Fishtown folks are concerned, I believe that we have pretty strong ties there already, largely through [Alliance advocacy director] Patrick Rossi. So people like Andrew Fearon and Ken Milano are in frequent touch with Patrick, and I feel like the alliance there is pretty strong. As far as the Young Friends are concerned, you know, when I joined the board of the Preservation Alliance, I was essentially a “young friend,” and here I am, about to become the executive director. And I did serve for three years in the early 2000s as board chairman, so the Young Friends are obviously the future of the city, young people in general, the Young Friends are the future of the preservation movement, and we need to be embracing them, cultivating them, listening to their ideas, and enabling their growth. Because, someday, they’re going to take my place.
Michael Bixler: How do you plan to engage with the Mayor’s Office?
PS: Well, you know, the City has created, through charter change, a whole new department of planning and development, that has new personnel in charge of that, and its director, Anne Fadullon, in particular, and her team, obviously a new mayor, who, in 2014, introduced a bill to increase the historical commission’s budget, so I feel like there’s a sympathetic tone that is there in the administration. They’re new, they’re only what, today’s their fifth month in office? So I think it’s opening up lines of communication, articulating our goals, and trying to find ways that our goals align with the administration’s goals, understanding their constraints. Try to develop a good working relationship in the early months and years of the administration, so that we make our point clear and they’ll hopefully buy in and respond to some of the recommendations that we’re making.
But I will say, just two things I read over the weekend gave me a renewed sense of how resource-constrained the city really is. There was Steve Volk’s piece in the current Philadelphia Magazine about building collapse at 22nd and Market Streets. The building collapsed in 2013, and one of the underlying points of the piece was: here is a life-safety issue with a demonstrable downside if we don’t meet the need, and yet, the City still hasn’t increased [the] resources that the Department of L&I, which regulates buildings, gets. Despite all of the recommendations, that they do so, despite all of the affirmation that it needs to be done, it’s still not done. And that is a top-level dominant safety issue. Here we are talking about preservation, in that context. And the other thing, the other piece that I read that was kind of an eye-opener, was the piece (in the Inquirer, by reporter Julia Terruso) about the Department of Human Services, and the huge increase in caseload since the Sandusky scandal.
And DHS has been put on notice by the state, that they’re not measuring up to the state’s standards, yet DHS is also running on fumes and deprived of the resources it needs to meet the challenge that they have. So we’re talking about collapsing buildings and children, and we’re in there, you know, and I don’t think it’s that the people in the administration don’t want to increase for the Historical Commission, it’s just hard for them to give to one child, when all of the other kids have their hand out. So we have to be cognizant of that when we talk to them, and be also talking about ways to increase the size of the pie in the city, encourage development and growth and tax revenue, which is what pays for all of this.
NP: My sense is that your instinct is to always be cognizant of those things, and to work assiduously at finding the places where acceptance can be gained and ultimately in more fundamental kind of organic and careful way, without shouting a lot and without demanding.
PS: Well I’m a big believer, especially as I’ve gotten older, in moving the needle. You know, you keep the pressure on, and you try to move that needle. Eventually, you can get to a point where it moves fast, but the hard work is to get that needle to move along consistently, if slowly.
Hopefully you get to the point where things take off, just like it has in Center City. You know, 25 years ago, we started, I was there, with the Center City District, picking up litter and providing uniformed security personnel to improve perceptions of our downtown, which were at a low ebb in the early 1990s. And at first it felt like we were lone operators shouting at the wilderness, as business, residents, and visitors continued to shun Center City, but at a certain point the floodgates opened, and now people are pouring into Center City. So it’s those kinds of lessons that I’m bringing in with me into this job.
BM: How important do you think it is to expand the number of building that are on the Philadelphia Register?
PS: I think it’s very important. That, and also restarting the historical approval process, because this city is in a very different place today than it has been at any point in the post-War era. We are, for the first time since then, experiencing a development boom. We, as the top two or three most historic city in the nation, don’t know what we have, which is borderline scandalous. How can Philadelphia not understand what its historical resources are? We did a great job in the last century protecting, and in many cases interpreting, our 18th and 19th century landmarks in the core of the city. The challenge of this generation is to do the same for neighborhoods beyond the core, and that’s where the development boom is happening. So, you know, of course Fishtown comes right to mind, where we’re losing John Notman churches and 200-year-old wooden houses. Not only are they not on the Historic Register, but they’re not even properly inventoried and catalogued. And I think, I’m not blaming anyone for this, that when we were in a decades-long mode of contraction, it wasn’t a priority. But now we’re in a new mode of of expansion, and we’re getting caught with our pants down a little bit, as a city. Los Angeles is a contrasting example, a city much younger than Philadelphia, but much bigger than Philadelphia, and they’ve conducted a city-wide inventory. So that’s an extremely high priority.
Doing the survey, and also, since that’s probably going to be probably a ten-year process from the point it begins, which is not imminent, I think we need more immediate efforts to identify the most important buildings in these neighborhoods, and get them protected sooner. And that comes back to the resource constraints that the Historical Commission is facing.
PW: There are some sort of work arounds, that I could imagine, for how to get buildings in larger chunks under the register. Districts are one, transferring National Register buildings onto the Philadelphia Register, which would protect them from demolition, or even maybe even a mass expansion of the Alliance’s easement program? Because, you know, there’s an incentive there?
PS: Yeah the easement program is an important tool, and one that I’m interested in seeing how we can expand. We have 240, I believe, today, and I can’t wait to see that number grow. So I’ll be working with the Easement Committee and the board of directors, working with Amy on our staff, who oversees that program, to see how that tool can be expanded as well.
BM: Speaking of limited resources, the Alliance makes its own set of resources available to the public, and held nominated buildings as sort of educational tools, that are great. If I remember correctly, I think the last update they got was in 2007, and I wonder if the development boom that’s happening would require any changes to those materials, and I wonder if there’s a way to proactively encourage neighborhoods beyond Fishtown and Point Breeze to get neighborhoods like Nicetown or Olney or somewhere like that more actively using those resources to pitch in from their end and make things easier for everybody.
PS: There very well may be. In fact, one big way to spark this movement would be to energize people who care about history and historic sights in their own neighborhoods to become aware of and use these tools to a greater degree, because our elected officials would have little choice but to respond to that. If that’s what’s being demanded out there, than it would make the argument about expanding the resources of our official historical preservation apparatus much more compelling to more people.
BM: So then it seems to me that in that case, the sort of hidden allies are neighborhood organizations and community development organizations that can be prompted to care about something.
PS: Well I believe they already do actually.
NP: Some of them do and some of them are fearful of preservation because it might get in the way of something that they want to do.
PS: Well, you’re kind of touching on a subject that I think is, to some degree, the elephant in the room, which is that preservation doesn’t really have the best reputation among all people. That it has a reputation, to some degree deserved, as being building-hugging zealots, who care mostly about Williamsburg, paint colors, and window profiles, and I would like to find a way to dispel that impression, and replace it with a much more conservation and sustainability argument about maintaining and preserving already-built, beautiful structures with some flexibility of how they’re reused and rehabilitated. Much better than seeing the John Notman church coming down for eight townhouses.
NP: But how do you standardize that, how do you make it a tool that can assist the apparatus in the laws that are already out there?
PS: Well I would like nothing more than to see Philadelphia become a laboratory for that kind of thinking. Where else would be a better place to do it? Boston is too rich, Baltimore is too small, New York is too global. I think that we are a natural place for preservation to kind of discover its next era in the service of preserving and enhancing a great, historic, American city.
PW: I think we talk about doing more neighborhood outreach or we talk about any of the things we’ve talked about, but the limitation right now at least is staff capacity from the Alliance’s part. You don’t have many staff members. So the question would be, where do you see additional revenue, where is it buried right now? So that you can get access to get some of these programs off of the ground or experiment?
PS: I think a robust membership development effort, including cultivation of additional major donors, is not low-hanging fruit by any means. I think it’s hard work, but I think that there is uncapped potential to grow the Alliance’s resource base from the local community. Other cities have managed to do that and I think Philadelphia can and should do a better job with that. I think that most of the first decade of the Alliance’s existence we relied much more on foundation funding and that funding has largely gone away. And so we are still in a transition period from that to a movement-funding base–the preservation movement. We’ve got to continue to develop and grow that. I don’t think there is any other way.
PW: You don’t think that there’s ways to create programs that are different from what you’ve done before that may be appealing to foundations in the region?
PS: I think there’s potential, but foundations are much more project-oriented than they used to be. They’re not doing general operating funding like they once did. You know, the Alliance was founded on three years of operation funding in the 1990s from William Penn and Pew. That just doesn’t happen very much anymore. Now they want a specific project and a specific timeline and a specific result and they’ll pay for that plus a little bit for general operating. So I don’t think you can really base an organization on general operating foundation funding anymore. So that’s why I think the only way is cultivating major donors and growing a large membership base.
PW: Speaking of major donors, the Alliance has done a pretty good job in the last few years cultivating, or at least getting on the road to that. But, in doing so, if you look at the donors there’s some names on that list that, to some of the more diehard preservationists might be folks who have torn down some pretty great buildings. Are you or the Alliance cognizant of the donors it has in terms of developers? Cornerstone members like Bart Blatstein. Another would be Penn’s Real Estate Services.
PS: Penn’s pretty high up on both sides of the ledger. They’ve done some amazing preservation work. But they’ve also let a few things go that most people, including myself, wish were still standing. Penn, I think, as an
institution, they’re going to be here a long time and there are many, many, strong preservation voices within that institution. So I have no problem having them on our major donor list because they have done a lot of great things, will continue to do a lot of great things and we need to continue to have a relationship with them to make the case when we think that they’re not doing their best thing. They would probably agree with that too.
BM: World Heritage City. What do we do with that?
PS: I think a couple of things. It’s been a learning experience for me too since last fall to understand what it is, what it means, why we qualified as a city. There’s some things I now know, which is, at its essence, it’s basically a club of cities that have something like Independence Hall. It doesn’t mean it’s not a commentary or an assessment of our historical and cultural patrimony. Which one of you wrote the piece online about this?
It has been misunderstood to mean it’s a commentary on everything that the city represents. As far as I can tell, that seed was not planted by the local leaders of the World Heritage movement. They’ve been completely upfront about what this is which took me a while to understand what it is too. What I think it means in a broader sense is that it is yet another reminder to locals how important this city is. And it there was a bit of a misunderstanding about what it meant that is OK because it can have the effect of making people think twice about demolishing historic assets even if that particular historic asset wasn’t on the radar when we got that status. It is a little shorthanded way and cynical to just call it a marketing tool. Even if it wasn’t based on an assessment of our cultural assets as a whole it’s still a reflection of how we have amazing cultural assets and that we are seen by the world as having amazing cultural assets and we need to act like it.
NP: You mentioned reading the series we published a few years ago, “A Broken System.” We felt that it was an important piece that laid out the issues, all issues that are still here, three or four years later. The system is still broken. Maybe there is a little bit of more awareness, but we have lost a number of critical pieces of our cultural heritage, the Boyd Theater being one of the most important. What are our workarounds? So, there is a broken system and a deep revenue issue. Seems to me that the first workaround is you leading the movement, but what do you immediately do to signal that the crisis can be ended and solved?
PS: I don’t know if there is a simple answer to that. We are in a new environment with a new mayor with a new planning and development department. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the system is broken. I think the system is inadequate. They do a pretty good job regulating the 12,000 or so properties that are on the Historic Register. The Boyd was a heartbreaker, no question about it. But it was an exception not a rule. It happened under a different administration under different leadership. But it did take a lot of wind out of the sails of preservationists no question and it made everyone question whether or not the system is broken. We’ve got to cover all 138 square miles of the city. We’ve got to cover eligible historic districts proposed like Spruce Hill and Overbrook Farms. And it’s not going to be easy. I was in New York two weeks ago and toured around Sunnyside Gardens in Queens a little bit, which is now a local historic district. It was a big fight in 2007-2008 to get Sunyside Gardens on the register but now it is.
NP: And they have over 100 districts.
PS: Right. As always, New York beats us. But that’s the direction we need to go. Continue to make those arguments stronger, louder, and more persuasively.
NP: There was an attempt under former Preservation Alliance executive director John Gallery to really democratize the movement in a certain way. It is an issue I see where we really do not privilege industrial buildings, working class buildings, immigrant buildings, and particularly in African American neighborhoods–buildings that are cultural and historical assets. The program you guys had was cut, but it was very important in terms of a concrete thing to broaden the base and broaden the movement. This seems pretty important. Is there a workaround for that or a step towards it?
PS: I think about this a lot and my answer at this point is I hope so. It’s definitely a crying need in a city that is majority minority to work with diverse communities to advance the cause of preservation within those communities. It’s absolutely essential. It’s a conversation that I will be having with our board as we chart priorities and strategy over the next few years under my leadership. Preservation can’t succeed in this city if it is only seen as the provence of well-to-do white people. It has to cross ethnic, social, and racial boundaries.
MB: How do you change the conversation? How do you reorient preservation from the old perception of being the concern of a given few, of zealots, of affluent white donors to the concern of a broader constituency?
PS: It’s about building bridges within those communities and finding community leaders that we can have productive conversations with and identify joint opportunities where we can work towards a common goal with preservation as part of it. The program that Nathaniel was referring to, I would like to restart that which might be foundation-fundable.
My mind goes to a neighborhood like Germantown which is incredibly diverse with people of all races, colors and creeds having a shared affection for their community and its landmarks with no historic districts and very little protection to speak of. What a great place to start. Outside of Center City Philadelphia it’s arguably the most important, concentrated historic neighborhood in the city.
PW: That’s a question too. You can’t focus on one thing all of the time. Do you focus on one place?
PS: Possibly. The approach could be on a geographic quarter of the city or a building type like worker’s houses of the River Wards. Or it could be the focus of the under-protected works of great architects like Willis Hale. There are multiple ways to do it, but we need to pick a lane and go with it. Picking a lane in life is always good because it always takes you somewhere.
The problem is trying to pick all of the lanes. It’s like when we were starting the Center City District people were saying, “you have to have a retail and recruitment retention program and you have to have an office recruitment program and you have to have a storefront improvement program.” Our first chairman in 1990 was Ron Rubin and he said I will be the chair of this organization if you pick only two things to focus on because you don’t start a new business by doing 25 different things. So, we picked “clean and safe” and we got good at that and now look at everything that the CCD does.