Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Winter 2023 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
It’s hard to watch pieces of a city you love get torn down. All over Philadelphia, centuries-old buildings with multifaceted histories and architectural significance are being lost, replaced with the same bland boxes popping up all over the country. Fighting the pressures of development can feel hopeless, but sometimes a loss strikes too close to home. That’s exactly what motivated residents surrounding the 1500 block of Christian Street to partner with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia to nominate the area known as Black Doctors Row.
“Christian Street was a bustling African American neighborhood,” Linda Evans, who was part of the group pushing for designation, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in June 2022. “Blacks met the systemic racism in this city and the country at large by establishing their own community here.” The nomination of the six-block district–the first nomination in the city explicitly written to recognize Black history–was passed the following month, thanks to a push by residents, the South of South Neighborhood Association, and the Preservation Alliance.
Philadelphia, despite being one of the most historic American cities, has not protected some of its most historic and architecturally significant neighborhoods. Yet, over the past few years, with a fortified Philadelphia Historical Commission and political support, residents are taking matters into their own hands and successfully leading efforts to designate their beloved neighborhoods as historic districts. Their motivation: to protect the character and feel of their neighborhood and ensure that residents have some say in how it evolves.
From “Powerless” to Empowered
One new district, designated in November 2022, has other neighborhoods particularly hopeful. The Powelton Village Historic District encompasses 935 properties–the largest district designated in almost 20 years. Nearly a year later, residents say they feel relieved and thankful for the protection.
Plans to create the district had been in the works for more than a decade. “Back when these conversations were happening in the ’90s and early 2000s there was a hesitancy to add any potential burden for homeowners,” explained George Poulin, a member of the Powelton Village Civic Association. That’s still a factor, he said, but with the current climate in the city and the pace of development, the protection that districts afford comes with a new appeal for many residents. Poulin and others are adamant that historic districts don’t present an either/or scenario when it comes to development. “[The historic district] doesn’t stop development, it just creates more balance and more guidelines for how that development occurs,” Poulin said.
In 2018, Powelton Village took steps toward protection by becoming a conservation overlay–a zoning overlay with looser regulations than a historic district that still allows communities some say in new development. The imminent Schuylkill Yards project motivated the community. In 2020, armed with funding to hire a consultant group, the Powelton RCO, or registered community organization, took a formal vote among residents to gauge interest in pursuing historic district designation. 97 percent of respondents supported the idea.
Part of the basis for support, said Poulin and Mark Brack, chair of Powelton’s Historic Preservation Committee, is that neighbors have experienced real threats to the neighborhood they love. A few years ago, a proposal for apartments on the 3600 block of Lancaster Avenue would have taken out a nearly intact 19th century commercial row. The RCO contacted the City and negotiated with the developers to save the facades. “I think that really scared a lot of people, that we might have lost something like that,” said Brack.
Another message that resonated at public meetings was considering what it meant to be in a neighborhood and to sacrifice something for the greater good. Maybe you’d prefer not to have regulations imposed on your property, but you also might be granted some peace of mind knowing that your neighbor can’t suddenly demolish their half of your twin. In a city of attached homes, it’s a reasonable consideration.
A similar line of thinking led residents in Strawberry Mansion to pursue a neighborhood conservation overlay as well. “People in the city were feeling powerless,” said Tonnetta Graham, executive director of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation, which was instrumental in passing the overlay in December 2020.
With the tax abatement encouraging the demolition and development of smaller rowhouse blocks, said Graham, neighbors in Strawberry Mansion were witnessing change and development at an alarming pace. Conservation overlays and historic districts are ways to put some measure of control in communities’ hands, she said, adding, “It’s a tool in our arsenal that we didn’t know about.”
Until recently, enacting any measure of protection at the neighborhood scale was blocked by an unofficial moratorium on reviewing and approving districts upheld by the Historical Commission. The official explanation the agency offered at the time was that the office’s staff of five didn’t have the capacity to review the decade-long backlog of district-scale nominations. But perhaps the most consequential obstacle–both real and perceived–was a lack of political support and, in some cases, blatant political opposition from key members of City Council.
Previous attempts to nominate a Spruce Hill Historic District had been thwarted, first in the 1980s and again in the 2000s, when Councilmember Jannie Blackwell opposed the proposed district and introduced legislation that would give councilmembers undue say in historic district designation. Although it has never been explicitly stated by the Historical Commission, that threat seems to have played a large role in the halt of historic district reviews. Prior to 2017, the last historic districts that made it through Historical Commission review were Parkside (110 properties), designated in 2009, and Awbury (33 properties) and Tudor East Falls (210 properties), both designated in 2010. For the next seven years, nominations for Overbrook Farms, Washington Square West, and French Village in West Mt. Airy languished.
In 2017, things began to turn when residents successfully nominated “420 Row,” a block of eight turreted twins on 42nd Street off Baltimore Avenue, to the register. Designed by the Hewitt Brothers, Victorian architectural masters, the row is remarkably intact with its quaint milled porches, looming toothed gables, and monumental shared archways. But the real key to designation, it seemed, was the district’s modest size and the unanimous support among the eight property owners.
Things have come a long way since 420 Row and the first few “microdistricts” were designated. Over the ensuing six years, more than 2,500 buildings and structures have been protected through the designation of historic districts. Powelton Village is responsible for nearly 1,000 of those properties, and a Spruce Hill nomination for nearly 2,000 properties is in the works–this time with support from the councilmember, Jamie Gauthier, and the Historical Commission, whose increased staff is helping strategize the best way to approach such a large nomination. So, why the sea change?
Steering Their Own Future
Community interest and persistence are essential. All of the recent success stories, including Christian Street/Black Doctors Row, Powelton Village, and the Victorian Roxborough historic districts, share some key factors. They were community-led efforts that saw strategic support from active neighborhood and civic associations along with advocacy organizations like the Preservation Alliance and University City Historical Society (UCHS).
Amy Lambert, preservation professional and board president of UCHS, which assisted with both the Powelton and Spruce Hill efforts, said she’s been pleasantly surprised at the reception the Historical Commission has given historic districts of late. With four additional staff members added since 2017, the agency’s larger workforce is working proactively with neighborhood groups like Spruce Hill, an encouraging development especially since the size, economic diversity, and prevalence of big landlords could make for a more challenging battle.
Other communities are taking notice. Since Strawberry Mansion’s overlay passed, Graham said many folks from other neighborhoods have reached out for advice on navigating the process. “First and foremost, it’s been a catalyst for other communities,” she explained. “Residents want to get a hold and shape what their community looks like.” Graham said the overlay helps create a space for dialogue between developers, residents, and RCOs that is not adversarial. The requirements provided by the overlay, she said, “force developers to take a closer look at where they’re developing,” and come up with something that respects the neighborhood context.
Wissahickon is one of the neighborhoods now pursuing a district nomination, in part due to perceived development pressure. The small community, nestled into the southern reaches of Wissahickon Valley Park, has a cohesive feel that lends itself to the district model. In September, Councilmember Curtis Jones introduced a bill to ban demolition in the area, a move that he’s deployed in advance of the Ridge Avenue and Central Roxborough historic districts over the past few years.
Neighbors are hopeful and emphasize that the measure is about encouraging controlled development, not stopping it altogether. “I think the important thing here is not framing districts as a tool for neighbors to prevent development,” said Joshua Castaño, who lives in a Frank Furness-designed rowhouse in the neighborhood. “I think it’s a tool for neighbors to manage development.”
Castaño’s sentiment is echoed by other neighborhood groups. After a long hiatus, the designation of historic districts has become a tool many Philadelphians are eager to use to ensure their neighborhoods thrive.
Confused about the different types of historic protections? Don’t know an RCO from an NRHD? Here’s a handy guide.
Local Historic Districts
Local historic districts are regulated by the Philadelphia Historical Commission and provide the strongest legal protection. Approved districts are listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and are the only neighborhoods afforded legal protection against demolition. They also require a review process when certain changes are made to the exterior of buildings within the district.
National Register Historic Districts
National Register districts provide recognition of an area’s history with the absence of any legal “teeth.” They also qualify building owners for various federal and state incentives. From the 1960s into the 1990s, a number of Philadelphia’s most obvious precincts–Elfreth’s Alley, Society Hill, Old City, Washington Square West, Rittenhouse, Germantown, and Spruce Hill–were all included, at least in part, in National Register Historic Districts. Not all of those ever became local historic districts, however, leaving huge swaths of the city susceptible to demolition.
Neighborhood Conservation Overlays
A neighborhood conservation overlay is a zoning overlay with looser regulations than a historic district. It allows communities to regulate materials, setbacks and massing for new development.
Registered Community Organizations (RCOs)
RCOs are community groups that are concerned with the physical development of their neighborhood. They receive advance notice of projects that will be reviewed by the Zoning Board of Adjustment or the Civic Design Review Committee. They are notified by the Planning Commission when a zoning variance or special exception is requested or when a development-required civic design review is requested. They also organize public meetings where community members can comment on planned development in the neighborhood.
Easements protect properties in perpetuity through a deed covenant that is carried with the property, restricting current and future owners from demolishing or inappropriately altering the building. Easements typically apply to the exterior elevations, but can be used to protect interior spaces and landscapes as well. They are typically donated by a current property owner and may qualify as charitable contributions that can be deducted from federal income tax.