Kenney’s Preservation Task Force readies report

During its opening months, Mayor Jim Kenney’s Historic Preservation Task Force established a collective understanding of the current state historic preservation in Philadelphia. So far it’s heard from the public, and national and local experts. Come December, the task force will release its first report, distilling that status quo. This document will be the foundation for the task force’s next phase: developing recommendations about how to improve the city’s preservation ecosystem.

On Thursday, the still-growing group (now weighing in at 33 members) spent the bulk of its November meeting reviewing a draft of this report. It offers an assessment of the city’s present preservation regulations; historic resource surveys and designations; incentives for preservation; outreach and education; and the current capacity of the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

Task force members offered broad feedback, from picky points about preservation policy, to broader thoughts about the tenor of the report and what pieces were missing or mischaracterized.

The draft report begins with a crack at reaffirming why preservation is important to Philadelphia today, and how it can help craft a more equitable, modern city that is still rooted in its heritage.

Feedback largely stuck to brass tacks and technicalities in discussions about the report’s review of the city’s current regulatory environment, the commission’s capacity, and the status of surveys and designations. Most task force members wanted to add more detail to the draft to paint a more accurate picture, and argued for sharpening the report’s language.

Philadelphia’s approach to archaeological resources is broadly seen as one of the current weak spots, made highly visible by the discovery last year of a burial ground unearthed at 2nd and Arch during excavation work. Archaeologist Doug Mooney offered a spirited and clear explanation of why the city’s current systems do not adequately address this type of historic resource and why the draft report should not hedge.

Instead of stating archaeological resources “may be at risk,” Mooney stressed,  “Archaeological resources are at risk.”

Under the city’s current preservation regulations, he explained, there is no standardized process for conducting archaeological investigations, no archaeologist on the historical commission’s staff, and no training for commission members to evaluate archaeological resources.

“The existing system is geared entirely for the preservation of buildings,” Mooney said. “Archaeological resources need to be treated in a significantly different manner.”

Several task force members took issue with how the report characterizes the need for a comprehensive survey of historic resources, particularly how to incorporate information from other types of historic resource inventories that go beyond what is locally listed in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

There is the prevailing idea that “we cannot protect what we do not know about,” but there is a lot we do know, said preservation advocate Oscar Beisert and Cory Kegerise, of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. They argued the report should be clearer about ways to potentially make smarter use of fragmented but high-value information sources, like descriptions in National Register historic districts or surveys of particular building typologies.

“There’s a lot of information out there,” said Kegerise. “It’s just not well coordinated.”

Matthew McClure, a land use lawyer at Ballard Spahr, had comments about nearly every section of the draft report. He took issue with elements in the draft that he found to have an activist tone, such as the statement that a comprehensive survey is important because a “lack of information forces historic preservationists to run in to stop the loss of a historic asset at the last moment.”

McClure said he found that to be unnecessarily confrontational, instead of constructive. But Patrick Grossi, advocacy director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia retorted that it is an accurate characterization of preservation today. Advocates, Grossi said, only “have a blunt instrument at their disposal.”

After much back and forth, an audience member anonymously submitted a wordsmithed solution to resolve this tension, suggesting it be characterized as preservationists currently using a reactive approach as opposed to one that’s more systematic and predictable.

Fairness and balance were themes that the task force returned to several times. Most pointedly, developer Leo Addimando noted that the whole reason the task force exists is to confront the conflict between private property rights and historic preservation as a public good. That core issue isn’t addressed pointedly enough in the draft, he argued.

The draft report’s section on incentives, like tax credits that help soften this essential tension, is fairly lean because there are few financial incentives available to property owners.

As Econsult’s Peter Angelides said, “The current state is, there is no state.”

Much of the task force’s outreach and education work so far focused on organizing public engagement sessions and a survey for the task force itself. But the report starts reaching beyond that work to encourage the city to do more to diversify the constituency for historic preservation.

But Laura Spina of the City Planning Commission gently pushed back on the premise. There are diverse communities in this city interested in historic preservation, she said, “but they’re just not at the table that the historical commission is typically sitting at.”

Additionally, task force members were disappointed to note that there was no comment about how different city agencies, such as Licenses and Inspections or the Planning Commission, affect preservation outcomes. Comment was also lacking about the city as a steward, for better or worse, of a large class of historic public buildings.

Vice-Chair Dominique Hawkins set aside the latter half of the meeting to discuss whether the task force should explore the concept of taking a “tiered” approach to preservation in the city, a move that could significantly diversify the tools available for preservation. The response was a resounding yes.

This could mean the creation of different levels of designation, along with a corresponding set of regulations. Different tiers could also have access to different kinds of preservation incentives. There are already related systems in Philadelphia that could influence the shape of a tiered approach, such as conservation overlay districts that regulate design, property maintenance codes, and the zoning remapping process.

Other cities have tried different versions of tiered approaches, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation will provide background research on these other systems to inform the task force’s considerations of this option.

The next public meeting of the preservation task force will be on January 18th at 6:30pm at the Enterprise Center (4548 Market Street).

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