Mailbag: Preservationists respond

We received a lot of great feedback to Jared Brey’s story last week, “Out with the old, in with the old: Will Mayor Kenney take a new approach to preservation?” So today we’re opening up the mailbag and sharing a selection of letters to the editor in response to the piece:

Public Interest Preservation Mindset

Thank you for Jared Brey’s story on the state of preservation in Philadelphia.

Missing from this otherwise excellent article is a discussion of the impact all of this has on the public. We – residents and visitors alike – are the real losers when historic buildings are lost. Preservation ordinances were not created to satisfy aesthetes, nor to block development, nor to give attorneys billable hours. They were created to serve the public, by valuing and protecting our collective history. The first sentence of Philadelphia’s ordinance mentions the public three times:

“It is hereby declared as a matter of public policy that the preservation and protection of buildings, structures, sites, objects, and districts of historic, architectural, cultural, archaeological, educational, and aesthetic merit are public necessities and are in the interests of the health, prosperity, and welfare of the people of Philadelphia.”

What the current administration has forgotten, in its careful adherence to the letter of the law, is this spirit. One might offer a respectful counterpoint to Alan Greenberger’s assertion that the historical commission’s job “(is) not to determine that every single building that somebody thinks ought to be preserved should be preserved.” True – it is not the job of the Commission to save every building, but it is their job to make sure that every single building that somebody thinks ought to be saved gets a fair chance, and that the public is able to participate in that process. We are the ones suffering from the Historical Commission’s starvation diet. As Patrick Grossi pointed out in the article, Philadelphia’s preservation ordinance is quite clear on this issue: “The ordinance stipulates pretty clearly that part of the Commission’s charge is to be a public advocate for historic preservation, to provide education about what historic preservation means, what it can do, how it can play a role in your neighborhood, and to essentially be a liaison between the city and various neighborhoods to talk about their stewardship of historic buildings. They don’t really do any of those things.”

What the Commission primarily does is a very narrow, but legally necessary, part of its overall job – it reviews building permit applications and proposed projects for historically designated buildings and sites. This puts an understaffed and underfunded agency in a regulatory position on projects where millions of dollars are at stake. As a result, developers and property owners routinely show up armed with attorneys, consultants, architects, and a carefully cultivated cadre of supporters. And frankly, they are entitled to do so – applicants are free to purchase the best talent available, and they chalk this up to the cost of doing business. Likewise, the public pays for representation through tax dollars, which then fund agencies charged with looking out for the public interest. In the case of the Historical Commission, this is the part of the equation that has fallen apart. Without a strong and independent Commission, who is representing the public?

That task has fallen to a largely volunteer and non-profit advocacy community. It’s no surprise that the vast difference in the time and resources available to non-profit organizations and volunteers, as opposed to real estate attorneys and developers, has led to a string of losses for preservation. To expect a largely volunteer advocacy community to compete successfully with the partners of major law firms is unrealistic. To subsequently blame that community for a lack of success, when the Commission itself is not able to undertake many of the mandates outlined in the ordinance, and has shown no willingness to change this state of affairs, is unfair and cruel.

So how could Mayor-elect Kenney change this story? The best thing he can do is to hold on to the anger he felt, not as a councilman, but as a member of the public, at being unable to do anything about the callous treatment of the historic B’nai Reuben synagogue building. He can make appointments with a thought to who will look out for the public interest in protecting our historic built environment, not who will most easily aid development – admittedly also a public interest, but one with many other advocates. He can give those appointees a mandate to make sure that citizens and neighbors are aided and supported in protecting the rich historic fabric of our city and neighborhoods – by nominating more buildings to the Philadelphia Register, by funding additional staff for the Commission, and by demonstrating in his actions that he takes preservation seriously. It’s not hard to believe that the current mayor has never specifically issued instructions to the Commission on how to vote. He didn’t have to. By dint of his appointments, the intent was clear. Mayor Kenney can be equally clear – with his appointments, with additional funding, and with his demonstrable personal interest in preservation – that protecting historic buildings is in the public’s best interest.

Very truly yours,

Katherine Dowdell

Even Handed Illumination

Just a note of congratulations on a very fine article – namely your November 12th think piece on preservation.

It is a model of research, fact finding, and even handed interpretation. Like you, I know many of the people involved although I do not always agree with their decisions. Your descriptions are sensitive and ring true to me as an involved person.

But the real achievement of this article is much greater than mere accuracy or even handedness. By getting out what anthropologists would call a “thick” description of the situation  (or is it in fact a “system?”) you make it impossible to be satisfied with a superficial response. You in fact show that the easy myths of both “sides” in this story are full of holes.  This supports our cherished objective at DAG of raising the level of discussion on subjects related to the built environment, design, and planning.

Were I still teaching, I would use this article as a model, and I will refer it to my colleagues who are still in the classroom.

Congratulations! You have set a very high standard for the articles to come in this series.

George L. Claflen, Jr. FAIA LEED AP

A quick note to thank you for your excellent piece on the state of preservation in our fair city. Here’s hoping to improvement with the new administration. It sheds light on many issues.

I learned a lot about how this City works through our nomination of 3600 Lancaster. Needless to say, the picture you paint seems to be consistent with what we experienced firsthand. The more people who know, the better.

Thanks again,

George Poulin, AIA, LEED AP
Powelton Village Civic Association


Hidden in Plain Sight

Thanks for running Jared Brey’s observant and generally even-handed piece on preservation in Philadelphia.  As a proponent of the cause who remains appalled by its current state, I naturally wish you’d given more space to that side of the argument.  (God knows, there are many of us out there and we’re eager to speak!)

The one part of the article that struck me as blatantly unfair was the suggestion that critics of the Philadelphia Historical Commission rely on “conspiracy theories” to make their case.  Is the PHC radically underfunded compared to other big-city historical commissions?  Yes, it is — demonstrably.  And why aren’t those comparisons valid?  Because, according to Dr. Farnham, Philadelphia is a “special case.”  Really?  More special than New Orleans or Baltimore?  Perhaps such specialness also explains Mr. Greenberger’s apparent refusal to use one cent of his considerable political capital to push for more funding for the agency while endlessly touting his transformative impact on city planning and other pet causes.

Along similar lines, it takes no paranoid theorizing to show that the PHC has sided with the demolition applicant in every hardship case it has heard in recent memory.  This is a simple matter of record.  Nor were those decisions the necessary result of some legal algorithm, as Farnham and Greenberger seem to suggest.  The law provides a framework for these decisions but it does not dictate their outcome.  Was the PHC obligated to dismiss the purchase offer on the Boyd rather than explore it?  Was it obligated to allow demolition of the Blue Horizon’s interior because it was a “tolled space”?  Was it required to agree with Penn’s argument about 40th & Pine: that the house had little historical significance had lost architectural “integrity,” and that an attempted lease amounted to an attempted sale?  In these cases and others like them, the answer is “no.”

Perhaps the most conspicuous thing hiding in plain sight is Mr. Greenberger’s job title.  He is indeed the Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and, from all accounts, has done a good job promoting that cause. The problem is that, given a real or perceived choice between preservation and economic development, the PHC under Greenberger routinely and predictably favors the latter.  Are there cases where preservation and economic development are compatible?  Yes, indeed.  But even these seem not to pique Greenberger’s or the PHC’s interest.  Many commercial projects are eligible for federal tax credits but, as with other educational initiatives, the City does little or nothing to spread the word.  Instead it blames the “advocacy community” for failing to do things that are patently its own job and stated clearly in its ordinance (thus Patrick Grossi’s comments to this effect.) Of course, there are also cases in which preservation and economic development are at odds.  But by treating every hardship case as such an instance, the PHC perpetuates the misconception that preservation and economic development are always antithetical.

Thanks again for shining light on these issues.

Aaron Wunsch

Advocacy In Practice

Thank you for the well-written and detailed article. I would like to offer you an advocate’s perspective on the state of historic preservation in Philadelphia.

I was recently at community meeting in northeast Philadelphia, when a local historian of Frankford approached me about a nomination that had been rejected by the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC). After a four-month staff review, the nomination for a 200-year-old building was rejected as “incomplete and incorrect,” which included a two-page description of its deficiencies. With only 58 designations between 2009 and 2015, this nomination was one in addition to the annual average of eight per year. He and I will soon resubmit.

This brought to mind my first Philadelphia nomination in January 2015—a former Presbyterian Church, circa 1851. The “complete and correct” process took far less than four months—with special thanks to my M.A. and Laura Dipasquale, a progressive member of the PHC staff. According to the PHC rules and regulations, once a nomination is determined complete and correct it can then be calendared for review by the Designation Committee. A nomination is calendared when a notice is sent to the owner and the building is placed under the jurisdiction of the PHC. In the realm of historic preservation policy, this is incredibly important because it provides immediate protection to an undesignated historic property, becoming crucial when that property is endangered. However, at the time my nomination was determined complete and correct, the PHC leadership did not schedule regular meetings of the Designation Committee and without a regular schedule, nominations for historic properties could not be immediately calendared and therefore protected. This meant that the most essential piece of the advocacy component had not been implemented. 

After I got involved with Save St. Laurentius (SSL), I found out that the organization had been informed by staff leadership that the PHC was not set up for fast track nominations. The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia did not offer to assist with writing the nomination.  Based on my experience in other cities, I surprised by these reactions, I decided then and there to effect change. My forty-plus page nomination was compiled and submitted in under a week, and getting it protected took two more. Eventually, communities and individuals from Fishtown, Germantown, Northeast Philadelphia, Powelton, Roxborough, University City, West Washington Square, etc. contacted me seeking assistance. Since that time, I have dedicated all of my free time to “Keeping Philadelphia”—nominating undesignated historic properties; reaching out and responding to communities; uniting the history and historic preservation communities to form a volunteer nomination team; and working effectively to educate others and impel the City’s extant preservation policy. As a result of these labors, roughly forty buildings have been protected since January with more in the works. These efforts have required one thing—leadership, something that the historic preservation community in Philadelphia is greatly lacking. 

In the last decade, the onslaught of development has created a new culture for historic preservation in Philadelphia. This also required a change in the culture of the PHC. The increased development meant increased permits. In the case of the PHC, this did not lead to increased funding, and, as a result, staff time has been almost entirely dedicated to reviewing permits. This is where leadership enters the conversation. Without funds for additional staff, PHC leadership should have worked to unite the history and historic preservation community to ensure that historic preservation was part of the development process. This did not happen and we can see the results all around us. For example, the former Union Baptist Church, where Marion Anderson learned to sing, and Mt. Sinai Hospital are being demolished this week. Because advocacy is an important part of historic preservation, this failure to designate important historic properties during this great period of development shows a failure of our community as a whole. 

We must preserve this old world city—this World Heritage City. Keeping Philadelphia should part and parcel to our urban morality. 

Yours in Service,

Oscar Beisert

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