Four Policy Tools To Advocate For At The Mayor’s Historic Preservation Task Force Meeting

September 29, 2017 | by Starr Herr-Cardillo


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

In the case of these late 18th century town homes on the 4200 block of Chestnut Street, the last-minute nomination of the buildings to the local register resulted in a drawn-out legal battle. Ultimately, the buildings were demolished after the Historical Commission refused to vote on whether or not to designate the buildings, despite the fact that the nominations were correct and submitted on time. | Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

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

Station D, a 122-year-old former post office in Graduate Hospital, was converted into condominiums in 2006. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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

The Chinese Cultural and Community Center has sat vacant in the heart of Chinatown for years. It was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2013. | Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

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

The potential demolition of five buildings on Jewelers’ Row by developers Toll Brothers, who plan to build a 16-to-24-story condo tower on the site, has raised questions about the impact of the City’s 10-year tax abatement on undesignated historic properties. | Photo: Ryan Collerd

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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About the Author

Starr Herr-Cardillo is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. When she’s not covering local preservation issues or writing editorials for Hidden City, she works as a historic preservation professional in the nonprofit sector. Born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, Herr-Cardillo was drawn to the field by a deep affinity for adobe and vernacular architecture. She holds a Certificate in Heritage Conservation from the University of Arizona and an M.S. in Historic Preservation from PennDesign.


  1. Kathy Dowdell says:

    Spot on. Excellent summary.

  2. James says:

    About Toll Brothers, if they have the demolition permit, what are they waiting for? Is it economic preservation for future projects or what?

    Incentivizing rehab of abandoned buildings, first you have to find willing parties able and willing to participate in such rehab. Once found, then construction can go on. But you have to find a re-adaptive use for the abandoned building otherwise it stays abandoned and subject to demolition.

    Adaptive reuse can work if a use is found, otherwise building stays abandoned and subject to demolition once a better use is found in new construction.

    Tax abatement should not be used in a political way to force developers to preserve buildings they do not want to preserve and prefer to construct a new building on site. But for developers who prefer preservation, they should get t he same benefit for re-adaptive renovations as those who construct new.

    1. Kathy Dowdell says:

      The buildings on Jeweler’s Row are not abandoned. In fact, at the time this project was announced, many of them were fully occupied. And there are powerful incentives for developers who renovate or adapt historic buildings, in the form of the National Historic Investment Tax Credit, which returns 20% of a project’s costs to the developer.

  3. Davis says:

    Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

  4. Dane Wells says:

    I am in favor of adjusting the tax abatement rules to require a sign-off from the Historic Commission and the Design Review Board before an abatement can be given. Sure, you might have use-by-right, but that doesn’t mean you can have a perk also. This would give needed muscle to the Commission and Board.

    This can be done with proper guidelines and procedures, and perhaps could even cover inappropriate infill in certain types of blocks.

    Many, even those that like it, think the abatement program needs a haircut, well here is one possible trim.

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