Grappling with preservation in Overbrook Farms

What the heck is going on with the Overbrook Farms Historic District? Everything and nothing, apparently.

The Historical Commission has been working on creating a local historic district for Overbrook Farms for years at the behest of the Overbrook Farms Club. But when notice finally came that the district was coming up for designation, some residents felt blindsided. The Commission has twice honored requests – from Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. [pdf] and most recently from Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger [pdf] – to hold off on voting on the Overbrook Farms Historic District. Greenberger asked for the proposal to be tabled so that his office could get up to speed on the debate surrounding the proposed district. So, as JoAnn Greco reported for PlanPhilly, the Historical Commission suspended the designation of Overbrook Farms indefinitely, promising to take the matter up “in the near future.”

So, what’s at play here? Pure politics? Development interests? Honest confusion?

Is it possible that City Council is renewing its occasional interest in having final approval for proposed historic districts? I’ve seen that scenario at work in other cities and the politics get ugly, and I have seen the long-term protection of historic resources lose out to perceived short-term gain of specific development proposals that may never happen. Historic district designations are supposed to be decided on the merit and integrity of the resource, not by some political calculation. So let’s get this one right: Overbrook Farms meets seven of the ten criteria Philadelphia uses to determine eligibility for designation. Like other planning decisions, historic designation is about thinking long-term and should not be given lightly. By all of these measures, the designation should be a slam dunk.

As the Daily News recently reported, institutions like the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia own several buildings within the proposed district boundaries. So perhaps there are development interests at play here. Historic districting can be compatible with institutional growth. Designation just means that exterior changes would require a permit and demolition would not be an option.

The most likely reason that the Overbrook Farms Historic District has stalled out is a communication breakdown. It’s entirely possible that since 2004 the residents who supported the Overbrook Farms Club’s push to become a district have moved or interest has waned. Admittedly, the Overbrook Farms Club and Historical Commission did not do their best keeping residents in the loop during the long road to designation. So residents were surprised when the received a letter from the Commission requiring them to abide by city’s preservation regulations while designation was considered. (This is standard practice to prevent speedily acquired demolition permits or incompatible alterations snuck in under the wire.) To be fair, proposed historic districts in Philadelphia do not come up every day. It’s normal that the process and consequences of designation would feel foreign.

While all of those reasons are plausible, they’re not central to the anti-designation conversation. Instead I’ve heard some bogus and inaccurate justifications given for holding off on this vote. Among them:

  • We need more time. Local designation for Overbrook Farms has been under consideration since at least 2004. More time isn’t the problem here. The problem was a communication breakdown. The Historical Commission and the Overbrook Farms Club should have done a better job educating residents about the process as the designation process heated up. But time isn’t the issue.
  • It’s too big. Councilman Jones said district was so big that “ it’s kind of hard to create a one-size-fits-all [designation].” Overbrook Farms was one of Philadelphia’s earliest planned suburbs, by developers Henry Wendell and Walter Bassett Smith. It was laid out in 1892, and developed over a period of about 30 years. Because Overbrook Farms was planned as a whole, and remains very intact as a resource, it should be designated as a whole. The boundaries of the original development conform to the proposed district. The argument that it’s too big to designate is a false one. There is no size limitation for an historic resource. Sorry, Councilman Jones.
  • We need to negotiateNegotiation, to me, sounds like pulling the plug. I don’t believe that the public should be the arbiters of historic merit in cases of designation. Property owner consent is not required and should be one of many factors taken into consideration. Historic designation, not unlike zoning, is the subject of careful research and the product a broader perspective on the city’s development. Historic preservation is a public priority, so it’s time to treat it that way. The historicity of Overbrook Farms is not really negotiable.
  • Preservation is expensive. It can be, but that expense is also negligible. I have less sympathy for owners of the fine homes in Overbrook Farms who cry poverty than I do in many neighborhoods worthy of preservation in Philadelphia. If Diamond Street, one of Philadelphia’s first local districts, can handle designation, so can Overbrook Farms. There are sources of financial assistance out there that can help property owners offset the cost of repairs that meets the Historical Commission’s standards. The Commission should also be willing to thoughtfully compromise on certain types of reversible repairs.
  • Preservation is limiting. Yes, historic designation is restrictive but that can be a good thing. The same restrictions that limit what you can do to the exterior of your house also apply to your neighbors. That means that everyone is held to the same standard, which helps maintain and enhance property values within the historic district boundaries over the long term.

People don’t move to Overbrook Farms to live in Northern Liberties or Conshohocken. So, if I may offer a final word to residents of Overbrook Farms: One reason you likely chose to live in Overbrook Farms is the historic look and feel of the place. You live in an old building, and a few of you live in very special old buildings, but then you probably already knew that. The character of your neighborhood is currently maintained by the goodwill of property owners and nothing more. Designation is the best tool to protect the distinctive character of Overbrook Farms as a neighborhood in the long run.

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