Mayor Jim Kenney’s Historic Preservation Task Force is expected to release its final recommendations to the public in this month. Organizations like the National Trust for Historic Preservation have tried to help steer the Mayor’s Office towards establishing better preservation standards in Philadelphia. While the strengths and vulnerabilities within the policy framework of the Historical Commission has been closely examined, the preservation potential of the Department of Licenses and Inspections is often overlooked. L&I often works in tandem with the Commission and is on the front lines in the fight against one of historic preservation’s worst foes, demolition by neglect.
Developer-driven redevelopment is a very public and abrupt process. However, demolition by neglect is a slow and gradual process caused by vacancy and a lack of investment. It occurs mainly in areas where real estate development pressures are low. It also comes with its own unique set of challenges. In an interview, L&I Commissioner Dave Perri identified vacancy as a key indicator for unsafe or imminently dangerous properties and one of the first things that his department looks for when identifying neglected properties. As of 2017, the Philadelphia Land Bank estimates that there are 28,509 vacant lots and 14,843 vacant residential buildings in the city. Of those buildings, 4,770 owe over $800 in back taxes or are more than three years tax delinquent.
Historically, much of Philly’s vacancy occurred due to economic disparity, “white flight,” divestment, and a shrinking manufacturing industry. Many neighborhoods began to see higher rates of abandonment and neglect by the 1960s. When the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) was launched in 2001, it was estimated that the city contained over 26,000 vacant buildings and 31,000 vacant lots, many of which were concentrated in African American neighborhoods that were subjected to redlining beginning in the 1930s. NTI was formed to help eliminate dilapidated buildings and clean up vacant lots. The program would see the demolition of around 5,000 mostly-vacant structures. While this fell far short of its initial goal of 11,000 to 14,000 demolitions, protests still occurred in neighborhoods like Mantua and Strawberry Mansion that were initially targeted for the program.
Today NTI no longer exists, yet the City is still fighting the aftermath of decades of abandonment. Data from L&I shows that there are nearly 5,000 properties that have “unsafe structure” violations and 127 “eminently dangerous” properties. For historic properties, L&I has an ace in the hole to protect them from demolition. When a property that is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places the owners of a building are required to keep their property in good repair per the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Ordinance i.e. Section 14-1000 of the Philadelphia Code. L&I enforces this stipulation by issuing demolition by neglect violations along with other fines that may be incurred. This violation means that owners are obligated to address the issue through repair only and may not demolish the building.
The purpose of this legislation is to prevent owners of historic properties from trying to circumvent preserving their buildings by letting it fall into disrepair and later making a hardship claim to have the building razed. Such was the case with the Purvis House at 1601 Mt. Vernon Street, a former stop on the Underground Railroad that was added to the Philadelphia Register in 2000, part of the Spring Garden Historic District. The current owner acquired the property in 1977 and has struggled for years to maintain it. According to court documents from November 2017, a rear portion of the house was in a state of collapse. L&I, with support from the Historical Commission, filed an injunction to secure the area around the lot. A decree was ordered to allow the agency to demolish this portion of the site with the provision that the owner restore it back to its original appearance within one year.
But L&I can only enforce this policy within the Preservation Ordinance. This means that the agency can only serve properties that are on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and not properties on the National Register with a demolition by neglect violation. As of November 2018, there were over 23,000 properties on the Philadelphia Register–17,116 in districts and 6,259 individually-designated buildings. There are approximately 550,000 buildings total in the entire city which means that only four percent of the building stock is protected under this legislation. But Perri said that he takes “exception to people that want to say that the City’s demolition program is somehow undermining or hurting preservation efforts.”
In cases when a building is found to be unsafe and it is not designated historic, the owner is required to hire an engineer at their own expense to evaluate and make repairs to their property. If the owner does not comply, L&I undergoes a triage process to identify properties in the worst condition and earmark them for demolition. There are currently over 5,000 properties in the city that are considered either unsafe or imminently dangerous. But, as it stands, L&I only has the capacity to demolish about 500-600 properties per year. This is comparatively fewer than peer cities like Baltimore, which demolishes 1,200 unsafe buildings a year and is less than half the size of Philadelphia. One tactic that Perri believes could increase the strength of the demolition by neglect policy is to automatically add properties that are on the National Register to the local register, which would add local, legal protection to over 555 properties.
Many preservationists are still skeptical of the impact of the City’s demolition program on unprotected historic buildings. A proportionally higher number of properties are listed on the Philadelphia Register than are demolished each year. However, those numbers are heavily skewed towards Center City, while concentrations of vacancy occur in areas outside of the city’s core. There is a potentially large number of historic buildings in Philadelphia that are not protected under local preservation policy and remain vulnerable to demolition by neglect.
Just look at the myriad of historic jazz clubs along Ridge Avenue that are now gone. Pearl Theater closed in 1963 and was demolished within 10 years. Today, one of the last cultural landmarks along Ridge Avenue is the Checker Café at 2125 Ridge Avenue. The historically significant property has yet to be added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. It was flagged a few years ago when the Philadelphia Housing Authority was conducting their Section 106 review of Sharswood. At the time, the property had an “unsafe structure” violation from L&I. The Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office found that the property was eligible for the National Register and recommended that it be stabilized in order to avoid any adverse effect. PHA has taken several measures to repair the property and has even issued an RFP to partner with a developer to both renovate the building and nominate it to local register for legal protection. However, without historic designation on the local level, the property is still vulnerable to demolition by any private developer. If the building had remain in poor condition, L&I could have demolished it.
This disparity in the geographics and the overall proportion of protected properties in Philadelphia have led many to recommend a citywide demolition delay. Perri agrees that some sort of delay is necessary. Yet, without additional funding and staff, the Historical Commission cannot adequately carry out a citywide survey of historic properties, a much-needed undertaking to identify potentially significant structures. Perri noted that a citywide delay would be difficult to facilitate given the current capacity of both L&I and the Historical Commission. He said that it is currently more feasible to identify specific areas of the city like Ridge Avenue that have the potential for historic merit, and are threatened by neglect and redevelopment, to receive a demolition delay. Perri estimated that, in addition to the buildings already listed on the Philadelphia Register, his department could potentially handle an additional 1,200 properties under such an ordinance.
In addition to a tactical demolition delay, Perri said that there are other ways L&I can fight demolition by neglect in the city. The department recently won a legal battle through the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to reinstate their Windows and Doors program. This ordinance allows for the City to specifically target blocks that are 80% or more occupied and forces owners of vacant buildings to replace windows and doors on their properties instead of just boarding them up. The undertaking not only preserves a cohesive look of a block, but it also encourages owners to keep their buildings in decent shape.
Another tactic that L&I takes at times is to use funds from its demolition budget to stabilize or record a historic property. One example is the building at 239 Chestnut Street that sustained considerable fire damage in February 2018. The property was eventually demolished, but not before L&I laser-scanned the building and stabilize the adjoining property. While the department does not have the resources to do this on a wider scale, Perri said that in the future it is conceivable that a design-build contract could be executed similar to their demolition contracts to stabilize abandoned properties. For now, with limited funding and capacity, L&I must continue to triage the most severe cases of neglect and cannot allocate additional money towards special projects at the expense of public safety.
Perri is hesitant to speculate on the recommendations of the Historic Preservation Task Force, but he did indicate that a citywide survey of all historic properties would be a significant asset that would enable L&I to more effectively enforce policy on their end. If a property is not listed there is nothing to enforce. If more properties were on the local register, more would be eligible for a demolition by neglect violation. L&I has policies already in place to support programming on the preventative side, but the department lacks the capacity to execute it on a large scale. Like their demolition program, it would be interesting to see a similar stabilization program established and enforced.