City Council is making it harder to demolish buildings in 6 historic Philly neighborhoods

A bill expected to pass City Council aims to stem demolitions of historic buildings.

Powelton Village (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Powelton Village (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Residents of Powelton Village — a tree-lined neighborhood of Victorian townhomes — watch ever-expanding Drexel University with a wary eye.

“We are located near growing institutions and the most active commercial office market in the region,” said McCarty, who co-chairs the neighborhood group’s zoning committee. “Our neighborhood is faced with intense redevelopment pressure.”

In 2017, City Council declared the storied neighborhood a “conservation district,” a designation that regulates the material and scale of new construction but does not defend against demolition.

For Debra McCarty of the Powelton Village Civic Association, the conservation district’s guardianship has not proven robust enough.

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“We have seen many intact properties demolished prior to plans being approved for new construction,” said McCarty.

That’s why McCarty supports a bill, introduced by Councilmember Mark Squilla, that would regulate the razing of buildings in conservation districts.

The legislation would prevent the Department of Licenses and Inspections from granting demolition permits unless they are accompanied by building permits. That means a property owner can’t just knock down an old house, clearing the land for theoretical future development, unless they have a proposal for what they’ll actually do with the lot.

“We believe this bill will prevent unnecessary, speculative demolitions,” said McCarty.

There are currently six conservation districts in the city, covering neighborhoods like East Falls, Wissahickon, Queen Village and Overbrook Farms.

The legislation is supported by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia and follows a recommendation by the Mayor’s Task Force on Historic Preservation.

Many preservation advocates have argued for a much more aggressive policy known as a “demolition delay ordinance.”

Under such an ordinance, if a developer applied for a demolition permit on an eligible building, a temporary moratorium on would be triggered to give the Historical Commission time to review the historical merits of the structure and work on alternative plans with the developer.

Squilla, however, said that it’s best to start small.

“I don’t know that we’d want to do a city-wide demolition delay for everything because it would cause a little challenge for L&I and for development,” said Squilla. “But we’ll see how this goes and it could expand in the future. We could move forward in a more progressive, bolder way.”

The bill was approved by City Council Rules Committee last  Wednesday and is expected to be passed by the full City Council this week.

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