Philadelphia Far Behind Peer Cities Says National Trust

January 19, 2018 | by Starr Herr-Cardillo


A familiar scene. The Church of the Nativity at 11th and Mt. Vernon Streets was demolished in 2012 to make way for new townhomes. The Gothic church was built in 1844 and designed by notable Philadelphia architect Napoleon LeBrun. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, only 4 percent of buildings in Philadelphia have been evaluated for historic significance. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Mayor Kenney’s Historic Preservation Task Force held their second “On the Road” meeting last night from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. at the Enterprise Center in West Philadelphia. This was the sixth official meeting of the Task Force since its inception in July 2017.

Many of the 33 Task Force members were absent from the meeting, but public turnout was substantial with nearly all of the 100 seats in the auditorium full. Harris Steinberg, chair of the Task Force, introduced the session, pointing out four easels stationed around the room, each representing one of the group’s subcommittees (Historic Resource Survey Committee, Incentives Committee, Regulations Committee, and Outreach and Education Committee). Attendees were invited to make their way around the room during the first half hour and chat with committee members, offering suggestions and responses to prompts stationed at each corner.

“I actually like the format,” said Venise Whitaker, a preservation activist who lives in Fishtown, “I didn’t think I would like it, but you do feel like your voice is being heard… they’re taking time to answer questions and listening to how you feel.”

Working with Historic Germantown, students from Germantown Friends School set up a small recording studio just outside the conference room to gather sound bites from participants willing to offer their thoughts about preservation.

Following the initial activities, the audience was called back to their seats and Steinberg gave a brief overview of progress, noting that the group is in the process of refining its white paper, which was scheduled to be completed by the end of December 2017, but is now due at the end of this month. He explained that the next phase will involve each committee working closely with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to examine best practices in peer cities, which will ultimately inform their final recommendations.

Steinberg also announced that Karen Black, the consultant hired to manage the task force, has left her position to pursue another opportunity. An RFP to re-staff the position will be issued shortly.

Next, representatives from the National Trust gave an hour-long presentation that delved into preservation-related lessons learned from peer cities. Speakers included the Director of Research from the Preservation Green Lab and Field Officers from San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Washington D.C.

The Christian Street Baptist Church at 1020 Christian Street is next on the demolition chopping block. After a 5-4 vote by the Historical Commission in November 2017 in favor of placing the building on the local register, the vote was deemed incorrect after a review of the Historical Commission’s Rules & Regulations (more on that debacle HERE). According a Paul Christie, Deputy Director of Communications for the Department of Planning and Development, “The Historical Commission declined to designate the church as historic and thus did not list it on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.” It was built in 1890 for the congregation of the Protestant Episcopal Italian Mission & Church of L’Emmanuello. The church is an Italian Market landmark and a reminder of the wave of Italian immigration in South Philadelphia during the late 19th and early 20th century. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The presentations were informative and data-heavy, culling from previous research compiled by the National Trust. Comparing Philadelphia to Chicago, St. Louis, New York, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Buffalo, the National Trust broke down best practices from these cities in three focus areas that align with the Task Force’s subcommittees: surveying historic resources, education, outreach and constituency building, and building reuse. Notably, the National Trust has found that only approximately 4 percent of properties in Philadelphia have been evaluated for historic significance, dramatically less than peer cities. Statistics comparing Baltimore, geographically our closest peer city, and Philadelphia also seemed to resonate with the audience. Philadelphia is significantly behind Baltimore in terms of protecting historic resources and incentivizing preservation, a contrast made all the more stark through the clear, graphic presentation.

Although Steinberg acknowledged that taking in all of the information from the presentations at such rapid-fire pace was akin to “drinking from the proverbial firehose,” audience members were generally pleased with the volume and quality of information provided.

“I found the information from the National Trust interesting and hopeful, if we actually employ any of it,” said Heather Calvert, a resident of Cedar Park and preservation advocate. “Some of the information from peer cities made me mad that Philly lags so far behind in the embarrassingly low percentage of our historic stock that is protected.” This point was already well understood by the preservationist-heavy audience. Calvert noted, “We have Philadelphians who have been talking about these ideas for a long time. We’ve done enough talking. Now let’s actually do something.”

Slides from the presentations will be available on the Task Force’s website. Following presentations, Steinberg announced that there would not be a formal period for public comment or questions due to time constraints. Participants were encouraged to stay and chat with Task Force members or submit questions via index cards which were circulated throughout the audience during the presentations.

According to the Task Force’s website, athough all meetings are open to the public, only two are billed as official “public meetings” where the group will “listen to concerns and to collect ideas from citizens concerning historic preservation in the city.” The first official public meeting was held at the Independence Visitor Center on October 3, 2017, and the second will take place after the draft recommendations are released near the end of summer of 2018.

The next meeting of Mayor Kenney’s Historic Preservation Task Force will be held March 15 from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. at 1515 Arch Street in Room 18-029.


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. red dog says:

    A 33 member task force, many of which couldn’t be bothered to come to a public meeting. Why do I think not much will come out of this liberal feel good exercise. I foresee 10 to 15 recommendations, and then some back bench City Councilman will write up a law that somewhat covers a couple of the recommendations but nothing more will happen. Then after we go through another couple mayors, the whole process will start over. Needless to say the City’s so called Historic Commission will remain weak and largely pointless, the Preservation Alliance will struggle to find first base and the slow motion destruction of the City’s historic fabric will continue.

    Is this really the best this nations only World Heritage City can do?

    1. CD says:

      Agreed. The World Heritage designation makes it all the more embarrassing.

  2. glenn says:

    If they cant come to the meetings then they need to be replaced by people who will do their jobs

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