The designation of local historic districts has been a thorny issue in Philadelphia for the last decade. While many of the city’s neighborhoods are recognized as historic districts by the National Register of Historic Places, only a few are actually regulated and protected by the local register, whereby contributing structures are safeguarded from demolition. Society Hill, Rittenhouse-Fitler, Old City, and Spring Garden are all relatively large districts that were designated by the Philadelphia Historical Commission in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But a number of other proposed districts representing some of the city’s most distinctive and vulnerable historic architecture have been submitted to the City only to be tabled indefinitely. In fact, a few historic district nominations have been sitting in limbo for nearly 10 years.
On July 13th, the Historical Commission will vote on whether to designate the Wayne Junction and the Satterlee Heights historic districts, which make them only the second and third historic districts to be considered by the City since 2010. The nominations, written by the Historical Commission staff and local preservation activist Oscar Beisert, respectively, were both submitted in April 2018. Both district nominations comprise of only eight properties each.
Satterlee Heights encompasses eight residential properties within Spruce Hill along the south side of Osage Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets. If approved, it would be the second “mini-district” designated within Spruce Hill. Another eight property district, dubbed “420 Row” was designated last year.
The proposed Wayne Junction district consists of a collection of large-scale industrial buildings and coincides serendipitously with a development push from Ken Weinstein, president of PhillyOfficeRetail who has purchased a number of neighboring properties in the area. Weinstein plans to create a mixed-use transit-centric community around SEPTA’s Wayne Junction Station with apartments, offices, and retail. The project will likely take advantage of historic preservation tax credits to rehabilitate many of the historic properties. One of Weinstein’s purchases, an 1839 brick warehouse that was home of the former Blaisdell Paper Pencil Company at 137-45 Berkley Street, falls within the proposed district’s boundaries.
The scale, uniform architectural style, and concise narrative of both nominations seem to align with a trend in the type of districts that the Historical Commission is willing and able to consider: cohesive collections of buildings that demonstrate a clear architectural or historical theme and are extremely geographically compact. Movement on these two districts seems to confirm that the City is committed to the “mini-district” approach going forward.
The Historical Commission is often criticized for inaction when it comes to proactively designating historic landmarks throughout the city. Much of the blame is placed on their inability to review and designate historic districts in a timely manner due to understaffing. With two new staff positions added this year, the City is hoping to pick up the pace and to begin reviewing district nominations once again. However, if the past two districts are any indication, the size and scale of a number of proposals that have been in limbo for years make them unlikely candidates for consideration anytime soon.
Although districts are one of the most common and effective preservation tools used across the country, they are often met with pushback. Gaining political support from residents, homeowners, and as a result, politicians, can be challenging. The Historical Commission’s lack of staff power is certainly an issue. Some district nominations in line contain hundreds of properties which require time-intensive surveying and review. But politics has certainly, albeit inexplicitly, played a role in the agency’s hesitation to designate districts.
In both the 1980s and the 2000s neighbors prepared and submitted nominations for a Spruce Hill Historic District. The most recent attempt was never even considered by the Historical Commission due to pushback initiated by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell who, after vehemently opposing the district, introduced a bill that would give City Council members the power to review such efforts. Some believe that the controversial nomination may have been the genesis of the Historical Commission’s unofficial moratorium on historic districts.
Spruce Hill is considered to be one of the most significant collections of residential Victorian architecture in the country. The neighborhood borders the University of Pennsylvania’s campus and has been impacted by accelerated rates of development in the past decade.
Councilwoman Blackwell, neighbors, landlords, and developers rallied against the effort to locally designate Spruce Hill as a historic district. They suggested that the subsequent regulations and protections imposed on the area would have placed an undue financial burden on lower-income homeowners in the form of higher taxes due to increased property values and by regulating materials and other maintenance, which is a common argument against historic districts in general.
However, home values in the neighborhood have continued to rise substantially, even without historic designation. This is in part due to efforts made by Penn to stabilize the neighborhood, including the expansion of the Penn Alexander school catchment. A report by Penn’s Institute of Urban Research published in 2011 found that property values within the catchment area–bound roughly by 40th Street, Sansom Street, 47th Street and Chester Avenue–had quadrupled since the creation of the University City District in 1998.
A walk around Wayne Junction. Photographs by Michael Bixler.
In a recent attempt to stall demolition, neighborhood advocates resorted to what PlanPhilly referred to as “back door preservation,” initiating a zoning remapping bill that recategorized swaths of the neighborhood to be zoned single family as opposed to multi-family. Some worry that this move will lead to even worse affordability issues in the neighborhood.
While there may be room for criticism of the traditional historic district model—regulation of paint colors or the requirement of expensive replacement windows are often cited as a nitpicky examples of regulatory overreach—many of the critiques focus on density and affordability and can be off-base. While it is understood that the impact of districts can vary, there are ways to employ them that don’t place as large of a burden on homeowners. For example, by incorporating mechanisms for deferrals in increased taxes, by maintaining affordability, and by providing communities with some measure of control over speculative new development. Some argue they can even be used as a mechanism to prevent dramatic income disparity that often results from accelerated gentrification.
Recognizing the potential of historic preservation and the role it plays in larger issues, through districts and in general, requires investment of time and resources. More importantly, it requires vision and political will. Despite running on a preservation platform following the multiple preservation fumbles made by the Nutter administration, Mayor Kenney, one could argue, has racked up an equally bad preservation track record in a much shorter period of time.
Residents currently involved in the effort to designate Spruce Hill have little hope that a true, extensive district nomination will be reviewed by the Historical Commission anytime soon. Mary McGettigan, who helped found West Philadelphians for Progressive Planning and Preservation, has followed the City’s move to begin considering districts again closely. McGettigan regularly attends Historical Commission meetings and has made several appeals to commission members to take up considering Spruce Hill before other district nominations are considered. She points out that the neighborhood is at immediate risk of redevelopment and has one of the largest and most significant collections of buildings in the city—perhaps even the country.
McGettigan says that the Historical Commission’s response has been unbending and that the message from City staff has been explicit: the Spruce Hill district as proposed is too big. “We must resign ourselves to nominating bit by bit while the rest remains under threat,” said McGettigan.
Other residents that were involved in the effort remain frustrated and disillusioned after putting in years of hard work without ever receiving a clear answer from the Historical Commission as to the official status of their nomination. Kathy Dowdell, an architect who focuses on adaptive reuse, said, “They never accepted it as ‘correct and complete’ or returned it to us for additional information. It just entered limbo, from which it has never returned.” A lot can change in a neighborhood in more than 10 years, making the task of resuming the nomination daunting. “At this point, the big nomination is so old that, although the research would all still be valid, the building inventory and photos would need to be redone or significantly reviewed and edited,” said Dowdell.
In addition to Spruce Hill, four other previously submitted historic districts await consideration, including: Overbrook Farms, Jewelers’ Row, Washington Square West, and French Village in West Mt. Airy. Last fall, after receiving virtually no updates from the Commission for more than eight years, the author of a thematic district for cast-iron subway entrances was notified that the district would likely not be designated due to under-staffing and complications with designating SEPTA-owned properties, despite the fact that the nomination had been carefully researched and a number of SEPTA-owned properties are designated as local landmarks.
While it is encouraging to see any districts moving forward through the designation process, some hope that the Historical Commission simply getting a toe in the water rather than a move towards setting a new, and much less ambitious, precedent for what constitutes a historic district.
Paul Chrystie, Deputy Director of Communications for the Department of Planning and Development, said that the Historical Commission staff is actively working on a the large Ridge Avenue Roxborough Thematic Historic District that will comprising a five-mile stretch of Ridge Avenue. That district is expected to be reviewed by commission members in a public meeting later this year.