For a city of our size and age, Philadelphia is pretty far behind when it comes to protecting historic and culturally significant buildings. On Tuesday, October 3, the Mayor’s newly-formed Historic Preservation Task Force will host an open meeting from 6:30-8PM at the Independence Visitors Center. The general public is encouraged to attend and participate in voicing opinions and concerns related to historic preservation in the city. In preparation, the following is a brief list of policy tools worth advocating for in Philadelphia. The best thing about Philly being way behind the curve is the ability to learn from, modify, and adopt policies that have worked well in other large cities. Here are four policies that will serve the City well as it finally begins to address Philadelphia’s ongoing preservation crisis.
Adopt a Demolition Delay Ordinance
Adopting a demolition delay ordinance is the number one, most obvious step necessary to begin protecting Philadelphia’s historic architecture. Demolition delay is nothing new. Dozens of cities have ordinances (Chicago, Boston, Portland, Dallas, Denver, Albany, etc.) that postpone demolition for official review, many of which have been in place since the 1980s. You can think of demolition delay as a parachute. When a demolition permit is requested for a building over a certain age (typically 50 years old), a delay period (usually about 90 days) kicks in so that the historical significance of the building may first be assessed by a designated commission. While it doesn’t necessarily prevent demolition, the delay does allow the city to gain a sense of what is potentially being lost before it happens and to take measures to seek alternatives to demolition when necessary. Enacting a demolition delay ordinance in Philadelphia, a 335-year-old World Heritage City, with no comprehensive survey of historic resources, should be a no-brainer. With less than 3% of buildings designated to the local register, more than 97% of Philadelphia’s buildings can be demolished by-right without any check or pause for review. This leaves preservation advocates constantly triaging that creates unnecessary tension between activists and developers. The process should be standardized. We, as a city, need to make sure we aren’t losing irreplaceable, finite historic resources before we are even aware of them. Some cities, like Portland, Oregon, take this idea one step further by requiring the manual deconstruction of buildings beyond a certain age in order to salvage historic building materials. This progressive policy not only acts as a disincentive for demolition (manual deconstruction is much pricier than mechanical), but it makes the connection between historic preservation and sustainability by placing value on the embodied energy that historic buildings and building materials contain.
Adopt an Adaptive Reuse Ordinance
Adaptive reuse ordinances typically take the form of a zoning overlay and offer a variety of exemptions, waivers, and expedited review processes specifically for adaptive reuse projects within them. The idea is to encourage the reuse and rehabilitation of historic buildings by waiving or minimizing some of the requirements that make reuse projects cumbersome and, sometimes, cost-prohibitive for developers. One of the most helpful exemptions in many such ordinances is the waiving of parking minimums, which can kill reuse projects in dense downtown areas. Los Angeles enacted an adaptive reuse ordinance for its downtown in 1999. The policy proved to be so successful at spurring residential adaptive reuse projects that city government later extended the boundary. Phoenix, Arizona recently created a warehouse overlay district, a local take on the Los Angles model, to encourage adaptive reuse of a number of large warehouses downtown, demonstrating how the concept can be tailored to the specific needs of individual cities by targeting building types that may otherwise prove to be more difficult for developers to repurpose. Philly is already home to a number of highly successful reuse projects which, when incentivized accordingly, can occupy a happy medium where development doesn’t necessarily lead to loss of a sense of place.
Incentivize the Rehabilitation of Abandoned Buildings
South Carolina, which happens to be the home of the first local historic preservation ordinance in America (for the city of Charleston in 1931), enacted the Abandoned Buildings Revitalization Act in 2013. The act uses tax credits to incentivize the rehabilitation of vacant buildings and is applicable to all vacant buildings, not just historic ones. The incentive provides a state income tax credit of up to 25% to those who rehabilitate a formerly-vacant, income-producing building. Typically, in such scenarios, commercial space, offices, residential rentals and other uses are considered income-producing. Single family occupancy is not. Vacancy is a huge problem for neighborhoods suffering from long-term disinvestment and significantly decreases the value of surrounding properties. In tandem with the federal historic preservation tax credit and state tax credit programs, providing extra incentives to repurpose vacant buildings would have a huge impact in Philadelphia, particularly along commercial corridors.
Amend the Abatement
If Jewelers Row has taught us anything, it is that the high density zoning throughout most of Center city, in addition to the 10 year tax abatement and combined with a lack of historic designation, creates an environment in which developers can profit from purchasing and demolishing existing, relatively small, historic buildings in order to build towers of luxury homes on which they will not be required to pay taxes for 10 years. When Philadelphia began offering a number of city tax abatements in the late 1990’s, they were originally intended to spur rehabilitation projects. The tool has since been expanded to include new projects as well as rehabs, which has unintentionally put a huge swath of the city’s lower-density, undesignated historic fabric at risk. It is time for the abatement to be amended to exclude projects that require the demolition of historic properties. This would ensure that it is used as an incentive for infill and rehabilitation, not as a handout to developers to profit at the expense of our historic resources. Variations on this approach aren’t uncommon. In Austin, Texas, homeowners who live in historically contributing or potentially contributing buildings within historic districts qualify for 100% city property tax abatements on the property’s added value. This also gives owners the chance to rehab buildings that may not be considered “contributing” resources due to modification or neglect. When approached this way, abatements can be a tool to encourage preservation and maintenance of local architectural character, rather than as an incentive to tear down existing buildings in order to extract maximum square footage from a site.
For more information on how to get involved in historic preservation advocacy, check out the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s Preservation Toolkit resource.
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