How To Save A Building: Lessons From Four Cities

December 19, 2017 | by Ben Leech


Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Winter 2017 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

A ghost of a chance? Not in Philadelphia, where 1403 Jefferson Street was demolished in August. But the building might well have survived in other cities. | Photo illustration: Ben Leech

For preservationists across Philadelphia, the story is as frustrating as it is familiar. In late July, the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections received a demolition permit application for 1403 Jefferson Street. The handsome, well-maintained three-story rowhouse built in the 1870s on the corner of Jefferson and Carlisle Streets in North Philadelphia was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the surrounding North Broad Street Mansion Historic District. It was not, however, protected on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, so the demolition triggered no special review. Instead, L&I processed the application immediately and issued a demo permit on July 27. By August, before preservation advocates could mount an intervention, the building was gone, its brick facade, marble trim, and ornate bracketed wood cornice reduced to rubble.

1403 Jefferson Street is just one of an estimated 420 demolitions that will take place in Philadelphia this year alone. Exacerbating this demolition crisis is a startling statistic. More than 97% of all buildings in the city – everything not listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places– are vulnerable. An over-the-counter demolition permit can be issued for any unlisted property with no opportunity for public input or review.

But what if 1403 Jefferson Street had stood in another city? Would its destruction have been as swift and inevitable? As Mayor Kenney’s Historic Preservation Task Force convenes to assess and debate the state of preservation policy in Philadelphia, the case of 1403 Jefferson Street is worth considering. Do other cities have policies and procedures that might have saved this historic resource?

Chicago’s Demolition Delay Blues

Chicago, a city famous for its historic architecture, has two planning tools at the top of every Philadelphia preservationist’s wish list: a comprehensive inventory of historic resources and a demolition delay ordinance. The Chicago Historic Resources Survey ranks every building in the city on a color-coded scale of historic significance In Chicago 1403 Jefferson would long ago have been labeled “Orange” (having “some architectural feature or historical association… potentially significant in the context of the surrounding community”), the second highest rank in a seven-color spectrum. Buildings labeled “Red” or “Orange” are subject to a 90-day demolition delay period, during which time the city’s Historic Preservation Division reviews the property for potential landmark designation and explores demolition alternatives with the owner. The delay also gives preservation advocates and neighborhood stakeholders a short window of opportunity to mobilize for intervention.  

Philadelphia has no equivalent for either tool. Less than 10% of properties in the city, on estimate, have ever been surveyed for historic significance, and many of the existing surveys are now decades out-of-date. What’s more, these surveys have no legal significance—L&I only checks Philadelphia Register status in reviewing a property for demolition. But the same demo application filed in Chicago would automatically flag 1403 Jefferson’s “Orange” status. The application would be forwarded to the city’s preservation department for further review, alerting preservationists to the looming threat.

Philadelphia preservationists may covet these tools. Yet, as most Chicago preservationists will agree, they alone have not been enough to ward off a demolition epidemic just as dire as Philadelphia’s. While Chicago averages between two to three dozen demolition delay cases a year, the vast majority are released after 90 days with no further legal protection. In Chicago, unlike Philadelphia, nominations for landmark status require City Council approval, and in only one case since 2003 has the demo delay led directly to a successful landmark nomination. For a building like 1403 Jefferson, not a strong candidate for individual designation in either city, Chicago’s demo delay program offers both a useful model and a caution. “It isn’t a perfect tool, but it is absolutely better than nothing,” says Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, an advocacy organization which helped push the ordinance’s passage in 2003. “It buys a little time to engage the owner, engage neighbors and aldermen, do research, build a case, explore creative alternatives and compromises. We’d love to see it expanded to 120 days, or even a year, to be really effective, but we’d definitely be losing far more important buildings without any demolition delay at all.”  

Protection: The Spirit of St. Louis

1403 Jefferson might have enjoyed a far longer existence in Saint Louis, another midwestern city with a strong architectural identity. In 2009, the city passed an ordinance establishing “Preservation Review Districts,” another tool with no Philadelphia equivalent. In such a district, every single demolition permit is forwarded to the city’s Cultural Resources Office for a 45-day review period. The Office then assesses the building’s historic significance and potential for rehabilitation or adaptive reuse, and. staff then makes a recommendation to the city’s Preservation Review Board. If the Board finds the building possesses architectural significance, it will deny the permit. Among other factors, these reviews consider not only the condition of the historic property but also the character of any proposed new construction on the site.

Notably, such districts currently cover around 80% of the city. Even in neighborhoods that have opted out of the program (a decision made by each ward’s alderperson), properties and districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places will receive the same review. This process protects scores of buildings from demolition every year, even those that don’t meet the high standards of individual designation. Had its demo application been filed in St. Louis, 1403 Jefferson’s National Register status would have triggered review even if it stood outside a Preservation Review District. City staff would have determined the building to be “of merit” (meaning it contributes to an existing or potential historic district or possesses a unique architectural style) and structurally sound (defined in St. Louis as appearing capable of standing for six months or more without intervention), and denied the demolition application. Owners may appeal this denial to the Preservation Review Board; in rare cases, the Board will reverse the denial when “unusual circumstances” warrant the building’s demolition, usually based on the building’s condition or adaptive reuse potential. For 1403 Jefferson, occupied and in good condition, such a reversal would have been highly unlikely.  

 Nashville: Conservation Country

While Nashville is best known for its musical heritage, the city has also taken creative steps to safeguard its surprisingly rich architectural legacy. Though less than a third the size of Philadelphia in terms of population, Nashville’s Historic Zoning Commission has jurisdiction over 11,000 properties– roughly the same number as the Philadelphia Historical Commission. As in Philadelphia, the vast majority of these properties falls within local historic districts, but unlike Philadelphia, Nashville has two distinct types of district: Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs) and Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Zones (NCOZs). Though the city’s Historical Commission administers both, the zones offer different levels of protection and review to properties within their districts. NCOZs allow many more alterations than HPZOs; they don’t regulate replacement windows, roofing materials, or paint colors, for example. But in one very important respect, they are identical– both restrict the demolition of contributing buildings to cases of severe deterioration or economic hardship.

The less restrictive conservation type accounts for 20 of Nashville’s 28 local historic districts and 9,200 of the city’s 11,000 locally designated properties. These districts, established and expanded at a far higher pace than the more restrictive preservation districts, generate less owner resistance and political friction than traditional district designation campaigns– phenomena all too familiar in Philadelphia. Though similar in name to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s growing Neighborhood Conservation Overlay program, which sets compulsory design guidelines for new construction in certain neighborhoods but does not regulate demolition, Philadelphia currently has no functional equivalent to Nashville’s conservation district program. “In my opinion, if a conservation overlay does not regulate demolition, it is not a preservation tool,” says Robin Zeigler of Nashville’s Metro Historic Zoning Commission. “It may still be a useful tool for guiding development alone but it is not a preservation tool. We average about 30 informal [demolition] requests a month [but] are able to talk most people out of it before they actually apply [for a financial hardship exemption].”

In Philadelphia, 1403 Jefferson’s ill fate is directly tied to its location near Temple University, whose booming student housing market is driving the demolition of existing rowhouse stock for new multi-unit flats. Nashville’s counterpart is Vanderbilt University, a large urban campus and medical complex that, like Temple, sits adjacent to a number of National Register Historic Districts. At least eight local conservation districts, created partly in response to development pressure, are also located within two miles of Vanderbilt’s campus. Chances are therefore good that a demolition application for 1403 Jefferson’s Nashville avatar would land at the Nashville Historic Zoning Commission for review, and most likely, denial.  

Deconstructing Demolition in Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon has responded to its own demolition crisis with a unique solution. An alarming spike in neighborhood teardowns inspired the city to pass the nation’s first “deconstruction” ordinance. Rather than regulating which properties can be demolished via historic designation or other traditional preservation planning tools, the ordinance instead regulates how properties can be demolished. As any witness to a traditional demolition site knows, standard methods generate huge amounts of waste as heavy machinery quickly reduces quality building materials to useless piles of rubble. Portland now mandates that every single-family residence or duplex constructed before 1916 instead be “deconstructed” by hand, with all salvageable building materials recycled, sold, or donated for reuse.

Demolition, Portland, Oregon style, where by law buildings are carefully deconstructed piece by piece. | Photo: City of Portland

“Deconstruction is one of a handful of tools outside Portland’s historic resources code that makes would-be demolishers think twice before taking down a building,” says Brandon Spencer-Hartle, Historic Resources Program Manager for the City of Portland. The process is slower, more expensive, and more labor-intensive by design; not only is landfill waste reduced and fewer toxins (asbestos, lead paint, etc) released into the environment, but more jobs are created and more high quality building materials like old growth lumber are made available for new uses. And since going into effect in October 2016, the deconstruction ordinance has indeed succeeded in reducing the number of pre-1916 buildings being lost to demolition. Before last year, more than ten century-old houses were lost each month; the city now averages half that number.

While Portland’s deconstruction ordinance would not have legally prevented the demolition of 1403 Jefferson, it might have tipped the economic scales in favor of preservation. And if not, then its loss would have at least given new life to its bones as reclaimed lumber, brick, and stone, perhaps even in a nearby restoration project.

Bringing It All Back Home

So what can Philadelphia learn from 1403 Jefferson’s imaginary tour? For one, that local designation is not the only tool cities are using to protect their historic building stock and unique sense of place. Demolition delays, conservation districts, and demolition disincentives all share a common goal of slowing the loss of buildings just like 1403 Jefferson: the solid, functional, “everyday” historic buildings that give neighborhoods and cities their character, but that might not otherwise be high priorities for traditional historic designation. And it’s not just in these four cities. Within the last year, Phoenix and Dallas both passed demolition review ordinances of their own, joining Boston, Baton Rouge, Santa Monica, and dozens of other municipalities with some form of demolition delay. And neighborhood conservation districts empowered to regulate demolition, like in St. Louis, are found in Cambridge, Indianapolis, San Antonio, and elsewhere. Portland is already considering an expansion of its deconstruction program to include buildings constructed between 1916 and 1926, while many cities are considering their own deconstruction ordinances and other demolition disincentives.

One of Philadelphia’s main preservation strengths among peer cities is its open and inclusive designation process, and our recent pace of citizen-driven designations exceeds most other municipalities. But the continuing loss of buildings like 1403 Jefferson, demolished by the hundreds with over-the-counter demolition permits, make clear what’s at stake for the future of Philadelphia’s historic character. We cannot designate our way out of the demolition crisis alone, and should look beyond city limits for other approaches to preservation planning.


About the Author

Ben Leech Ben Leech is a preservationist, architectural historian and illustrator based in Philadelphia and Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Instagram @bentleech and support his capitalist alter-ego at Archivolt Press

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