Early this morning Mayor Kenney’s Historic Preservation Task Force held its 6th public meeting following the release of their draft white paper Preservation in Philadelphia on Wednesday, March 14. The draft, open for public comment, seeks to summarize the state of preservation in Philadelphia. The announcement came with an appeal for public input on the document itself and on a list of 30 issues identified by the Task Force thus far.
For the first 15 minutes of the meeting audience members were encouraged to participate in an exercise in which they could “vote” on which issues they felt to be the most urgent. The exercise began smoothly enough as members and the dozen or so attendees moved between poster-sized lists, placing stickers near issues that they wished to see prioritized. Some resolutions, including “reviewing the city tax abatement” and “linking incentives, significance, and regulation” received a number of votes while others, such as “do no harm” and “protection/regulation for ‘zones of wonderfulness’” received few to none. For those who missed the meeting and wish to provide input, the activity is also available online.
As members gathered around the table to officially kick off the discussion, moderated by vice chair Dominique Hawkins, the subdued order quickly devolved into a frustrated attempt to sort out the logistics of just how individual issues should be assigned and addressed by members of the group. Beginning with the topics which received the most initial votes, Hawkins and fellow Task Force members began assigning issues to the group’s various subcommittees, a system which didn’t seem to sit well with all of the members.
Many voiced the opinion that rather than be limited to one of the four subcommittees, issues should be addressed laterally, meaning that any member of the greater Task Force should have the option of providing input on any issue, not just those delegated to their particular subcommittee. Others, including Ballard Spahr attorney Matt McClure, who co-chairs the Regulating Preservation Outcomes committee with Hawkins, felt that not delegating issues to individual subcommittees would undermine the work that those committees had already put in. After a few more attempts to get through the list sparked more discussion, it was partially resolved that issues, when relevant to multiple subcommittee topics, would be assigned to multiple subcommittees and meeting times to discuss each topic would be made available to all Task Force members.
Moving into the second half of the meeting evoked feelings of déjà vu from the audience as Hawkins individually called on members to respond to basic, open-ended questions like “What are we preserving?” and “What exactly is it that we are trying to save in Philadelphia?” The exercise continued for the remainder of the time as members proceeded to give their own, subjective takes on the challenges and complications of preservation in the city, citing common themes including: the challenge of balancing preservation with growth and development, financial burdens that may be imposed by preservation and how they need to be better managed, the significance of historic places to communities, and the importance of the craftsmanship and quality embodied in historic buildings. While members expressed thoughtful and valid points of concern, some members in the audience felt that waxing poetic about what preservation means and why it should be prioritized did not feel like an effective way to spend half of a public meeting, especially this far along in the process.
Public comment was limited to 15 minutes at the end of the meeting. Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia posed the first question and requested an explanation as to why the Regulating Preservation Outcomes Committee is the sole subcommittee that is “closed” to other members of the Task Force. According to the white paper, the Regulation subcommittee is “evaluating the city’s preservation ordinance and the PHC’s Rules and Regulations to address current and future preservation needs.” Moving on to other comments, Steinke’s question was recorded, but left unanswered as public comments continued, which expressed the importance of incentivizing preservation for lower-income property owners and the need for more regulatory tools to support preservation.
It is clearly no small feat to organize such a large group, but the general disorganization and lack of focus on more substantive discussion felt like a familiar lost opportunity. Although the Task Force presents itself as an entity open to public input, actual opportunities for input thus far have felt highly controlled and limited to superficial realms. While previous meetings have been open to the public, subcommittee meetings are not, and only one public meeting has been specifically devoted to public comment. Considering the urgency of the issues surrounding preservation in the city, this kind of public participation can feel like lip service and, potentially, alienate engaged citizens from the process.
The draft white paper itself is an 18 page overview of existing regulations, economic incentives, and planning and advocacy efforts related to preservation within the city and state along with a summary of findings by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is the first of the group’s three set deliverables. The next paper will focus on best practices identified within the subcommittees to address Philadelphia’s specific challenges. With a limited amount of time left–the final report is due in December 2018–the pressure is on for the group to develop some substantive recommendations. Whether the public is privy to the actual process of how they go about doing so remains to be seen.