Planning Commission puts hold on Ridge Ave demolition moratorium

In late September Councilman Curtis Jones introduced a bill that would institute a one-year moratorium on demolitions along Ridge Avenue, a central thoroughfare that runs through Philadelphia’s northwestern neighborhoods. He worries that the booming real estate market is resulting in the destruction of too many local architectural treasures.

“Far too many buildings have been demolished in recent years,” said Jones, in a statement released at the time. “It is my hope that by introducing this legislation we can take a collective breath, evaluate our inventory of older homes on Ridge Avenue and designate many of these homes historic. One of the reasons this neighborhood is so special is the historic charm of these older homes.”

But on Tuesday, the Planning Commission voted to place a 45-day hold on the bill.  The action prevents a final vote in City Council, but would not preclude a committee hearing.

Jones’ bill applies to a five mile stretch of Ridge Avenue between Wissahickon Creek and Northwestern Avenue, where the city borders Montgomery County. It would prevent demolition except where a building is in an “imminently dangerous condition.” A property owner could also seek to obtain a permit by following the criteria that allow demolition exceptions in a historic district, such as showing a financial hardship or demonstrating that a building isn’t a “contributing resource” on Ridge Avenue.

The bill would sunset 12 months after being enacted, or once the historic designation process begins on 25 percent of the properties on the section of Ridge Avenue covered by the legislation.

The Historical Commission requested the 45-day hold, saying more time is needed to study the bill. The Planning Commission quickly assented.

“A big reason why 45 days is being asked is that five miles is a significant stretch and it’s not clear to us how many properties are on that,” said Anne Fadullon the Director of the Planning and Development Cabinet for the City of Philadelphia.  “If its 100, 200 properties it would definitely be a strain. This is a significant area and would put a huge burden on staff resources.”

Fadullon noted that although the Historical Commission is adding more staff, they are already occupied with the Historic Preservation Task Force in addition to their normal duties. The Ridge Avenue moratorium could delay work surveying other potential districts and properties to be added to the local historic registry.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, similar demolition moratoriums were enacted in Queen Village and Old City. In the latter case, the moratorium went into effect in advance of the implementation of the Old City Historic District, which protected all the buildings in the neighborhood from at-will demolition.

Jones introduced the bill at the behest of a group of civic associations in the lower Northwestern section of the city. The Preservation Alliance and other citywide preservation advocates were not involved in the crafting of the legislation, although they welcome it.

 “We’ve been concerned for some time now about the number of demolitions going on in the Roxborough area,” said Don Simon, president of Central Roxborough Civic Association. “Increasingly they’ve run out of empty lots, so they are starting to look at properties they can tear down inexpensively and put up mostly rental units. So we are asking for a stay of execution.”

Simon said his group and their allies haven’t decided whether to nominate the whole five-mile stretch as a historic district, or to just single out individual properties as worthy of protection.

“We need breathing room and time to sit back and assess what’s going on along the Ridge corridor,” said Simon. “There are a number of 18th and 19th century structures on the Ridge and we don’t want to see them demolished without first getting a chance to see what’s going on.”

Simon is concerned that any delay could prompt a rush for demolition permits from developers who are aware of the pending legislation.

But it is unclear exactly how much effect the 45-day hold will have.

The next Rules Committee hearings will be held on November 15 and December 5. Jones’ office expects it will be heard on one of those dates.

Contacted for comment, they did not seem worried about the 45-day hold, noting that a final vote probably wouldn’t occur within that time anyway because of the timing of the coming Rules Committee hearings. After a committee hearing occurs, and assuming it passes, the so-called “pending legislation rule” would then kick in and the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) would treat the moratorium as though it had already passed. 

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal