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Philly Mayor Enlists Task Force for Preservation

Thursday, June 8, 2017

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The only city in the United States deemed a “World Heritage City” has formed a task force to protect its historic buildings and update its preservation ordinance.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced the task force in late April, appointing a mix of developers, scholars, city officials and preservationists—nearly 30 people in all.

Davidt8, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

Carpenters' Hall (pictured) was the meeting place of the First Continental Congress in 1774. This is one of Philadelphia's designated historic structures. The mayor's new task force hopes to evaluate and catalogue all the buildings in the city.

Kenney—who had worked at Philly-based design firm Vitetta—is keeping a promise he made on the campaign trail to combat the loss of historic structures (most recently the city’s Boyd Theater).

“We will always have a clash between preservationists and developers, but we want to make sure that we have a process that allows it to take place in a more productive way,” the mayor said at the announcement. “We need to find ways to survey the city so that we can certify and designate historic resources and incentivize adaptive reuse.”

The Goals

The challenge of surveying the city’s 500,000 buildings is daunting and just one of the tasks on the agenda for the Historic Preservation Task Force.

Currently, only two percent of the city’s structures are locally designated as historic, while about 70 percent of the buildings are more than 50 years old, meaning nearly three-quarters of the city has the potential to be eligible for designation.

Kenney had recalled an instance years ago that sparked his passion for preservation—the new owner of old synagogue was “jackhammering the Star of David.”

“I was freaking out because it was an outrage, but I was told we had no authority because it was not on our preservation list,” Kenney said. “These are the things we need to correct and move forward with people who want to develop and grow this city and others who want to preserve its architectural heritage.”

The current preservation regulations were written in 1985, when the city was in a slump and wasn’t facing near the amount of developing demand as it is now.

Wiki publiuis, Public Domain, via Wikimedia
The First Bank of the United States (pictured) is one of Philadelphia's designated historic structures. The mayor's new task force hopes to evaluate and catalogue all the buildings in the city.

The force is supported by a $183,750 grant from the William Penn Foundation and will get assistance from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Goals, in addition to mapping the entire city, include easing zoning constraints for developers who aim to reuse aged buildings and demolition permit delays on buildings 50 years old or older so that they can be re-evaluated.

Harris Steinberg, director of Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, will chair the task force, and says the overall mission is to come up with an “open, transparent, deliberative process to assess the state of preservation as it relates to development in Philadelphia.”

The task force begins work this month, and has nearly a year to start developing a plan with an interim report due in spring 2018, a draft in the fall and the final report in December.


Tagged categories: Architectural history; Historic Preservation; Historic Structures; Preservation; Renovation

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