At its 3rd meeting, Philadelphia’s Historic Preservation Task Force looks at the good and bad of Philly’s historic preservation ordinance

When it was launched back in April, Philadelphia’s Historic Preservation Task Force was intended to help ensure that historic preservation was as much a part of the discussion around urban growth as the ongoing development of new buildings.

As detailed by PlanPhilly at the time, the task force was given the job of evaluating, “the city’s current preservation apparatus against national best practices, and to make recommendations about the best ways to survey historic resources, incentivize adaptive reuse, create structures that support a variety of preservation outcomes, and educate the public about the value of historic preservation.”

On Thursday, in its first “Task Force on the Road” meeting at Philadelphia University’s Kanbar Center, the 30-plus member Philadelphia Historic Preservation Task Force spent the lion’s share of its time reviewing the city’s historic preservation ordinance, which guides how the city handles preserving its historic properties.

And, as a city with nearly 12,000 properties on the city’s Register of Historic Places, this ordinance plays a huge part in determining the future of Philly’s past.

Will Cook, delivered a detailed analysis of the city’s historic preservation ordinance —  Chapter 14-1000 of the city’s Zoning Code – offering his thoughts on what he liked about the ordinance.

“On the outset, Philadelphia’s ordinance is fundamentally strong,” said Cook, associate general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the county’s largest preservation-centric non-profit group.

Cook also outlined several ideas for how the city could improve the ordinance, alluding to best practices employed in other cities throughout the country.

Cook started his presentation by noting the “Tragedy of the Commons,”  the allegorical social dilemma first deployed in 1833 by English economist William Forster Lloyd – to explain the need for balanced regulation to protect shared public goods.

Cook explained that, if unregulated, overuse of a common space can lead to “an inevitable march to certain end.”

Yet, he said, overregulation of these public goods could lead to stagnation and economic waste.

That’s why, he said, it’s important to find a balance in regulation to allow for urban growth while preserving the city’s history.

In pointing out benefits of Philadelphia’s ordinance, Cook said he found it to be broad in both jurisdiction and designation criteria – the ordinance includes wording intended to protect buildings, as well as including room for sites, objects and districts of historic, architectural, cultural, archaeological, educational and aesthetic merit.

In this way, Cook said, Philadelphia could preserve historic landmarks that might not be, specifically, entire buildings. He used the neon PSFS letters atop the Loews Philadelphia Hotel and the Tiffany glass “Dream Garden” mural in the Curtis Center as examples of this type of preservation.

Another benefit of Philadelphia’s historic preservation ordinance, Cook said, was the affirmative maintenance requirement, which requires properties located in the city’s historic district to be “kept in good repair.” This aims prevents “demolition by neglect” for buildings with historic significance, although Preservationists still stinging over the loss of buildings like the Boyd Theater might question its efficacy.

Cook also pointed approvingly to the Philly ordinance’s provision on financial hardship, which, unlike other cities,  requires a developer proposing to demolish or significantly alter a designated historic building  to provide an affidavit, show the amount paid for the property, assessed land values, demonstrate efforts to market the fully preserved property, consider adaptive reuse possibilities, and submit the planned construction to review by the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s technical advisory committee.

Still, Cook said, Philadelphia’s ordinance provides flexibility when literal enforcement of preservation laws would bring unnecessary hardship on property owners of low and moderate incomes.

In showing examples of historic properties where windows were replaced —  in ways that may not have been done in the original style of the historic structure — Cook showed that the city allowed for the “basic form and rhythm” of the requirements while creating community buy-in in these communities and still preserving buildings.


Yet, despite many positive aspects of the ordinance, Cook said there were places where the city could improve it.

Funding, or the lack thereof, for historic preservation was Cook’s primary focus for improvement.  Baltimore — a city with a population about half the size of Philly’s — devotes more funding to historic preservation than Philadelphia, Cook noted, while New Orleans and Phoenix both allocate twice the annual funding than Philadelphia does on historic preservation.

Philadelphia, unlike many other cities with a significant amount of historic properties to preserve, doesn’t have a demolition delay ordinance. This type of ordinance would allow for a certain period of time to need to pass before any building over a certain age could be demolished, possibly helping to protect historic structures targeted for demolition.

Cook also discussed the need for more archaeological protection to ensure that the city preserves the rich history that exists deep under the ground.

After Cook’s presentation, Dominique Hawkins, a founding partner at Preservation Design Partnership, said she appreciated Cook’s analysis.

“It was extremely helpful to have all of this information in a way that’s easily distributed,” she said.

For Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia the look at the city’s historic preservation ordinance was the “first time this task force has delved into an important issue.”

“We, as a city, have fallen behind other cities in preservation of buildings and historic designation,” said Steinke, who is not a member of the task force but attended the meeting. “We have to preserve our history.”

Doug Mooney, an archaeologist and task force member, suggested that the most important improvement that the city could perhaps make to its ordinance would be to add in terminology to protect archaeological work in the city.

“From the standpoint of archeology, there are no protections,” said Mooney. “It’s non-existent.”

But, it wasn’t always this way. Mooney said that in the 80’s, the city employed an archeologist in an effort to preserve archeological finds and sites in the city. But, in 1989, the individual who had the job left, and Mooney said, the role was never refilled.

“That’s something that desperately needs to be put into the ordinance,” said Mooney. “Arguably, the greatest amount of Philadelphia history is underneath our feet and that’s the part that’s the least protected by the government…. We don’t even know what’s being lost.”

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