Council considers permit fees to support Historical Commission

On Thursday morning, three City Council members introduced legislation to bolster funding for the city’s overburdened Historical Commission.

The bill, backed by Blondell Reynolds Brown, Mark Squilla, and Al Taubenberger would add an estimated $350,000 annually to the commission’s current budget of $424,560. This new money would come from small fees assessed to those who seek building permits for new construction, demolition, additions and alterations that require review by Historical Commission staff. The fee would amount to 25 percent of the permit cost. The minimum fee will be $50 and the maximum $10,000.

A press release from Councilwoman Brown’s office notes that New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., and Cleveland have similar fee structures to fund historic preservation efforts.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s office issued a press release indicating strong support for the proposal as well, although it differs from the proposal the mayor made as a councilman. Kenney’s proposal in 2014 would have created a different fee structure but also simply funded a one-time half million-dollar infusion to the Historical Commission from the city’s general fund to pay to add hundreds of sites already listed in the National Register of Historic Places to the local registry, which unlike the national recognition comes with a measure of regulatory control.

“One notable difference is that Kenney’s bill largely focused on getting current national register properties recognized locally,” said Patrick Grossi, advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. “That is only implicitly recognized as the goal here…there’s really no direct suggestion, so far, of what kind of work these fees would be going towards.”

Grossi says one possible avenue could be more efficient processing and producing of local nominations. Another long-standing desire would be a concerted effort to begin surveying the undesignated historically significant sites across the city.   

The fees charged by the legislation introduced today would go to the general fund, before being earmarked for the Historic Commission during the yearly budget process. The bill contains a reporting requirement to allow City Council to see exactly much the fees have generated, and from what sources, so that the proceeds can be monitored during budget negotiations.  

Despite being America’s only World Heritage City, many of Philadelphia’s significant buildings have been lost to the wrecking ball in recent years as the pace of development increased. Only 2 to 3 percent of buildings in Philadelphia are protected by the local historic register even though about 70 percent of the built environment dates from before 1945.

The commission blames the sluggish pace of new designations on a lack of funds. Advocates have been nominating more properties to the local historic register in the last two years, but that burst of activity comes after 15 years where a mere few dozen properties were added.

Action on creating new historic districts is at a complete stand still too, with the last the indefinitely tabled Overbrook Farms historic district initially considered in 2012 and other district nominations left waiting in the wings. Historic districts are the quickest way to protect large swathes of significant buildings, but none have been added since 2010. A would-be Washington Square West Historic District could have included the imperiled historic commercial corridor of Jewelers’ Row.

In an interview with PlanPhilly, Grossi spoke of a couple concerns with the legislation. Some developers try to avoid the historic preservation process by pursuing alterations illegally, which the Preservation Alliance fears could be further incentivized by the fees.  Also Philadelphia doesn’t have a local historic preservation incentive program, so property owners often react negatively when their buildings are nominated. If a small fee confronts them as well, backlash could intensify.

“The bulk of permit requests coming before the commission, would likely only trigger the $50 fee,” said Grossi. “That would be one of our primary concerns. How will this impact moderate or low income single family homeowners who happen to be in a historically designated building? It’s been suggested that most of these folks would only incur a $50 fee, but we’ll try to get a firmer sense of that.”

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