Did system doom historic N. Broad buildings?

Jan. 23

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Inquirer coverage
Preservation Alliance statement

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly
   The Philadelphia Preservation Alliance will not appeal a court decision that allows the state to resume the tear-down of two historic buildings to make way for Convention Center expansion, its executive director said Wednesday.
   Two weeks ago, Commonwealth Court Senior Judge Keith B. Quigley – acting on a petition filed by the Alliance – ordered the state Department of General Services to stop demolition. He called for a hearing that was to begin today.
   Tuesday, Quigley agreed with the arguments that DGS and the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority made in preliminary objections and canceled the hearing. The Alliance has no standing, he wrote, because it was not a party to an agreement signed by the Convention Center Authority and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission that said the buildings’ facades would be saved. He also ruled that DGS does not have to abide by the Memorandum, because the Commission’s role is only advisory.
     “After reviewing the opinion of the Court, the Preservation Alliance has decided not to appeal this decision further,” Alliance Executive Director John Gallery said in a printed statement Wednesday. “However, we continue to feel the buildings should be preserved and we continue to believe that the buildings can be preserved without an adverse economic impact on the convention center project.”
     The head of the state agency that advised the facades of the buildings should be saved said there’s nothing her agency can do about the court’s ruling.
     But Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Executive Director Barbara Franco said the process designed to protect the state’s historical treasures failed.
    “We certainly are going to be looking at how we enter into these (agreements) in the future, and we will be working more with our counsel to be sure whatever agreements we have can hold up in court.”
    The 2004 Memorandum of Agreement at the center of the buildings battle said three structures, including the facades of the PLICO buildings, as they are called, would be saved, and the PLICO buildings would be incorporated into the new convention center. The Preservation Alliance maintains that the demolition begun on the buildings shortly before Christmas violated that agreement.
     Franco has no argument with Quigley’s conclusion that her Commission has an advisory role only. But when the consultation process results in a mutual agreement about what will happen, the expectation is that those terms will be followed unless the agreement is amended, she said.
    Preservation Alliance Attorney Paul Boni said the Memorandum should stand, because the History Code gives authority to the owning or controlling party, and that at the time the agreement was reached, the Convention Center Authority had control, and was expected to become the owner.
    DGS spokesman Edward Myslewicz said the agreement became meaningless when DGS became the owner of the two buildings. “Any agreement that was established before hand is non-binding.”
    When asked why DGS did not have to re-negotiate the Memorandum or consult with the Historical and Museum Commission under the History Code, Myslewicz said he did not know, and the question would be better directed to the Commission.
    “I’m not a lawyer to say whether it’s valid or not, that DGS isn’t covered by it,” Franco said. But her agency would have been discussing and amending the preservation agreement with the Department of General Services if it had known DGS owned the buildings.
    “We learned after the fact that they took possession of the building in the fall – a year ago,” she said.
    In fact, in July, months after DGS became owner of the buildings, the Commission did negotiate an amendment to the Memorandum – with the Convention Authority.
   And in August, Franco received a letter from the Authority regarding their archaeological responsibilities under the Memorandum.
   DGS did talk to the Commission about the project – the two state agencies would come to a disagreement about the condition of the buildings and the viability of saving them. But Franco said it never occurred to her agency to re-negotiate the Memorandum with DGS because “we were assuming that PCCA was still a party.”
     It’s not unusual for the players to change, she said, but “it’s unusual for us not to be informed of the change. It was very hard for us to get a sense of who we should be dealing with.”  Franco said the Commission asked for clarification of the roles of the Convention Center Authority and DGS on several occasions.
      Franco said the process was sometimes confusing. “We asked at various times for clarification – because it was not always clear – about the roles PCCA and DGS were playing.”
    She said: “Certainly, both sides could have handled it a lot better. We didn’t have the information we needed. Maybe we weren’t asking for the right information. We certainly learned a lesson.”
     Gallery said the loss of these two buildings would be significant. “Not only will two important buildings be demolished – buildings that are a nationally recognized example of how to relate new architectural design to an older historic building – but the historic character of North Broad Street will be adversely altered.”

   Alliance calls for gathering at site Friday.

  Cranes and workers were stationed at the Philadelphia Life Insurance Co. building and annex Wednesday morning, but that does not mean the structures would be immediately torn down, Myslewicz said.
   “The judge’s ruling yesterday lifted the restriction, so we can start at anytime,” he said. But “we don’t have a timetable yet.”
   The cranes “may have been there” for some time, he said. And the workers were at the ready, but did not have orders to begin.
       Prior to the first round of demolition, the Authority told the Historical and Museum Commission that the buildings were in too poor a condition to be saved. In September, the Commission asked the Authority to have an independent engineering study done. After the review, court documents say, the Authority told DGS that the buildings were not sound enough to preserve.
     The Preservation Alliance found the engineering study to be faulty, and the Museum Commission agreed. In a Dec. 20 letter to DGS, the Commission said the buildings could and should be saved. Myslewicz said Wednesday that DGS has confidence in the study that said the buildings were unsalvageable.
     On Dec. 21, DGS informed the Commission that its role was advisory only, and that the buildings would be demolished.  
     Myslewicz said Wednesday that DGS has confidence in the study that said the buildings were unsalvageable.
     Governor Rendell and others see the expansion of the Convention Center as an important economic engine for Philadelphia. When asked if the potential growth and money an expanded Convention Center might bring were more important than the history of the buildings, Myslewicz at first declined to answer.
   But then he said it wasn’t about money or history.
   “We’ve said all along that this was a safety issue. We did not want any part or portion of the buildings to fall on or possibly injure the public,” Myslewicz said. The state’s concern began “even before the demolition was started,” he said.
    Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said the governor was “not involved in any way” with the court’s decision. “The judiciary is independent of the political process,” he said, and Rendell did not file any documents in the case. “The governor respects the court’s decision, and he would have respected it, either way,” Ardo said.”

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