When news about the Philadelphia Historical Commission appears in the Hidden City Daily it is usually about something big: a fight to save an historic building succeeds in being placed for protection on local register or a prominent building under threat of redevelopment fails to garner enough votes resulting in demolition. Running a remodeling company in Philadelphia for the last 15 years has given me many opportunities to partner with the Historical Commission on projects that require its oversight. My interactions with the agency are all about the small details that collectively shape the city’s streetscape, but do not make the headlines. This is not the stuff of breaking news, but it is important work.
Much has been written in the press and elsewhere about the Historical Commission’s limited resources and the small number of historic buildings that are listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Like many people, I believe the Historical Commission’s funding should be increased to match cities of similar size, and more buildings should be placed for protection on the local register for legal protection.
The realities on the ground also suggest that the process of issuing permits to work on historically protected buildings needs to change. Streamlining the process for projects involving registered properties could free up time, resources, and funding for the Historical Commission, while removing unnecessary hoops that contractors, architects, and owners must jump through.
When a building owner wants work done on an historic property that is listed on the local register, they have to appeal to the Historical Commission for approval before the contractor and/or architect can get a building permit from the Department of Licenses and Inspections. This is true whether the work is explicitly within the Historical Commission’s jurisdiction or not. If the project involves work on the interior, which typically is not bound by historic designation restrictions, Historical Commission staff notes “No Work To Exterior” on the permit application and rubber stamps it for approval. If the project involves replacing windows, repointing brick, or other types of exterior improvements, Historical Commission staff works with the contractor and/or architect to review old photographs, property records, and general best practices to devise a construction plan that remains faithful to the original facade. If the work is more significant, like alterations and ADA improvements, the application is passed on to the Historical Commission’s Architectural Committee for review. The Committee’s recommendation then goes before the full Historical Commission for approval at a public hearing. It can be a lengthy, time-consuming process for all, but simple steps can be taken to make it more efficient.
An example: My company recently bided on a project in Old City. Part of the project included work to restore the facade. The architect and the Historical Commission came up with a design that would have complimented the cast iron and stone storefronts that give Old City its charm. I say “would have” because that part of the project was never completed. Permits were closed, occupancy was granted, and an unsightly, painted plywood face stand where columns and mahogany doors were to be. The owners told me they didn’t plan to comply with the Historical Commission’s requirements and that they had avoided this process before. The owner contended that the building inspector wouldn’t stall a final approval over historically accurate exterior details. On paper, everything looked great as the proscribed process was followed. However, on the street the picture is very different today.
There are times when Historical Commission staff has visited my company’s projects to inspect and weigh in on our work. Mortar color and composition–the tricky details that require their input. The opinions of Historical Commission staff almost always align with my firm and our clients. People come to us because we love old buildings and take pride in restoring them. Most of the time, though, the work of compliance falls to us alone. A building inspector may have hundreds of active jobs. They have very little time when they come to inspect our projects and, thus, often strictly focus on structural and safety concerns. Their training and professional experience is rarely, if ever, in historic preservation, so there is no in-the-field enforcement of the City’s Historic Preservation Ordinance.
So, what can be done? Here are three basic steps the City can take to alleviate the complicated process and stretch the Historical Commission’s resources even further, while still safeguarding buildings listed on the historic register.
Give L&I a “No Work To Exterior” rubber stamp.
The Department of Licenses and Inspections already flags historic properties and sends them to the Historical Commission before a permit can be processed. Save contractors and City staff the time of rubber stamping a simple bathroom renovation in an historic property by giving plan examiners this work and leave the review of work actually in their purview to Historical Commission staff.
Produce clear documentation of what is required of contractors working on historic properties with a comprehensive FAQ.
It took me years of excessive visits to the office of the Historical Commission to learn what it takes to come prepared. What is the recommended type of shingle for a pitched roof in Society Hill? Answering this and other similar questions online would reduce the number of in-person meetings to get an approved building permit application that one can then take to L&I.
Reserve the Architectural Committee for important cases.
The Architectural Committee does not have the bandwidth to give proper consideration to some of the smaller projects that are sent its way. A small addition to a residential property would be better handled at Historical Commission staff level, where the thoughtful and knowledgeable staff routinely works out details with architects and contractors. I recently overheard an exasperated roofer from Girard Estate, designated an historic district on the local register in 1999, describe how water was pouring into their client’s nursery. Yet, the process for approving this permit was going to take at least two months since it would have to go before the Architectural Committee and then the full Historical Commission before she could get a permit to do the work.
The City needs to adopt a more practical and untangled approach for dealing with historic preservation. Two examples that could serve as a model come to mind: the city’s neighborhood zoning committees and the Civic Design Review Board.
There are many community-based committees that meet to review requested zoning variances in their neighborhood. The main task is usually to make recommendations on the merits of zoning applications to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which has the final say. Committees also routinely issue recommendations on everything from the brick color of new construction to a commercial building’s operating hours. Some of these are included as provisos in the eventual zoning and some are less enforceable, usually resolved by handshake agreements with the builder. These agreements require the neighborhood (committee members and neighbors that attend the meetings) to monitor the work. It is not effective all the time, but the same builders and architects will need to return to the committee again and are less likely to get the next zoning variance if they have gone against the wishes of the community in the past.
Civic Design Review is a formal municipal process that produces architectural and construction recommendations. Projects that exceed a certain size are required to go to one or two public meetings and work with the Civic Design Review board to redesign parts of the project before receiving permits. The process has no real teeth and compliance with all recommendations is not required. But having attended meetings and represented the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association at a few, I believe that the process is still productive and can be applied to historic preservation.
When someone wants to build, they generally want to start yesterday. Currently, getting a building permit for work on an historic property can add hours, and more often months or even years, to the process depending on the scale of the work. A more transparent, collaborative process that aims to reduce this delay needs to be implemented. Fire blocking and structural beams need to be inspected. Exterior shutter hardware does not. Yet, as things stand, the process for approving the former is simpler and faster than the latter. A substantial increase in funding more building inspectors and an increase in Historical Commission staff is in order. Let’s streamline the process for all and make actionable commitments to invest in Philadelphia’s rich architectural heritage.
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