Councilman proposes funding committee to register more historic buildings

Councilman Jim Kenney introduced a bill on Thursday aimed at stepping up the city’s efforts at historic preservation.

The measure would create a “Special Committee for Consideration of National Register of Historic Places.” Its purpose would be to review all of the properties that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places but absent from the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, and to determine which of those properties should be certified historic at the local level.

Only buildings that are certified historic on the Philadelphia Register are subject to special local protections against alteration or demolition.

According to the bill, the Committee would be responsible for nominating, within six months, at least a thousand additional buildings to the local register. The nominations would be “based upon the historical significance of the buildings, sites, objects or structures and whether they are at risk of being lost.”

The Committee would be composed of at least three members “learned in the historic traditions of the City and interested in the preservation of the historic character of the City.” It could include current members of the Historical Commission.

Jon Farnham, director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, said that he had been involved in conversations about the proposal, but deferred comment about it to Mayor Michael Nutter’s press office. Press secretary Mark McDonald said the Administration would comment if and when the bill goes to committee.

Ben Leech, director of advocacy for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said that Kenney’s effort is welcome, but that he’d need to take a harder look at its method.

“My first impression is, if Kenney thinks that there should be a lot more things on the Philadelphia Register—yes, we totally agree,” Leech said.  

Looking to the National Register to see what’s missing from the Local Register could be an effective approach to protecting local historic resources, Leech said, but the National Register has blind spots as well.

“It’s an interesting approach because it will capture a lot of stuff that isn’t designated and should be, but it’s not comprehensive,” Leech said.

“What we’ve been saying for forever is we need a survey—we need a plan,” he added. “The entire designation process … has been something of a catch-as-catch-can, pick up what we can when we can … That’s really not the way we should be doing it.”

Kenney’s proposal would transfer $500,000 from the city’s Grants Revenue Fund to the Philadelphia Historical Commission to complete the review.

“What we’re looking to do is take all the buildings on the National Register, have a committee decide which ones are significant, and then put them on the Philadelphia Register so if someone wants to alter or demolish, then we’ll have at least something to say about that,” Kenney told PlanPhilly.

“One of the factors which makes the city attractive is the unique architecture and age of the buildings,” he said. “We don’t want to see them go away unless they have to.”

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